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China's great leap forward

The Great Leap Forward was an attempt by the chairman of the CCP, Mao Zedong, to maintain his ideological and political dominance in the communist party, as well as in Chinese society, ensuing his failure of the 100 flowers campaign in 1956 and 1957. The Great Leap Forward was an attempt to resist the soviet system of industrialisation, as in the late 60’s Mao began to believe that the Russian Revolution was a failure of a communist revolution. Thus, Mao designed his own model of industrialisation, under the second five year plan, known as the Great Leap Forward, under which he predicted China to overtake Britain in the next fifteen years, and aimed to re-assert the CCP’s independence from the Soviet Union. It was an economic plan with the aim of making China a self-sufficient nation by increasing exports and productivity. However, the Great Leap Forward began in 1958, and was abandoned before the completion of its five years due to it being a massive disaster, culminating with the deaths of approximately 45 million Chinese citizens. The extent to which its failure was inevitable is debated upon due to the following reasons.

One can argue that the Great Leap Forward’s failure and disastrous outcome was inevitable because its fundamental postulations were flawed itself, being based on simultaneous collectivisation and industrialisation. In the words of Mao, it would mean “walking on two legs”, as Chinese society would have development in both its key areas, agriculture as it was an agrarian society, as well as industrialisation as the CCP wanted to develop China from an agrarian society into an industrialised socialist country. Thus, it was bound to fail as Mao’s impatience with the slow rate of progress towards development in China resulted in a hasty, inefficient and over ambitious strategy which would work towards two goals which can’t be accomplished at the same time. This is evident through the disbalance that manifested due to the Great Leap Forward between the rural and urban areas. Due to a dual strategy, Mao encouraged peasants to build furnaces in their backyards wherein they would burn metals to produce fuel and also make steel to aid the pace of industrialisation. However, this failed as 99% of the steel had to be abandoned as slag, slowing the rate of industrial production, whilst also slowing the efficiency of the farms because around 90 million farmers became involved in steel production and thus could not effectively work on the fields, lowering yields.

This outlines the inherent flaw in the plan due to the belief that both processes of industrialisation and collectivisation could occur at the same time, as doing so greatly reduced the productivity of both industrial production and farming. Moreover, the plan was greatly flawed as it was built on practices that promote inefficiency due to lack of incentives such as providing food in commune canteens irrespective of the amount of produce grown by the workers and the amount of work done, and other centrally allocated resources such as tools. Hence, the Great Leap Forward was bound to be a disaster as the principles and ideas that formulated it were inherently flawed due to collectivisation and industrialisation not being able to occur simultaneously.

Additionally, the implementation of the Great Leap Forward was flawed and hence inevitable to not succeed. For instance, neither the peasants nor the officials leading the peasant communes had knowledge regarding large scale communal farming as Chinese peasants had been working individually for centuries and thus their knowledge was limited to farming using individual resources and smaller plots of land. This is evident through the inefficient farming methods undertaken in the communes. For example, deep lowing and close seed planting were commonly used agricultural practices to use land efficiently by growing more crops per square area of land. However, the result was the opposite of its intent as these practices were not suitable for China's agricultural regions, leading to lower yields and

environmental degradation. Another such inefficient method was the movement of killing sparrows which was encouraged by the CCP, encouraging peasants to bang pots and pans to scare sparrows away, and even resorting to shooting them if they interfered with farming excessively. However, this led to the disruption of the ecological balance, causing a surge in the numbers of the prey of sparrows, such as plant eating insects, subsequently, damaging the crop yields of the peasants. This was further worsened by the extremely large scale of the communes, reaching as high as 20,00 farmers in one commune. The collectivisation wasn’t done at a steady pace, enabling farmers to adjust to a new style of farming. But rather, it was done in a non-linear progression, suddenly forming massive communes wherein the peanuts didn’t know how to work in an efficient manner as they had never done so before. Hence, the Great Leap Forward’s failure was inevitable as its inherent idea of simultaneous growth was flawed.

However, on the other hand, one can argue that the Great Leap Forward was not an inevitable disaster as its failure was largely due to environmental conditions that impacted farming, which were out of the CCP’s hands. For example, in 1960 there was the worst drought there had been in a century, consequently leading to exceptionally low yields being produced and thus causing a shortage of produce, leading to the famine in china. Furthermore, the Great Leap Forward failed due to a misinterpretation of weather cycles, as is evident in the first year of the plan wherein there were unusually favourable weather conditions. However, this factor wasn’t accounted for by peasants and their officials, leading to high optimism and an over consumption which lead to dangerously low stock piles, hence when the drought hit china the famine was even worse. This was because of the previous misallocation and overconsumption of resources, which left China unprepared for the future. This was a grave mistake as the unpredictable nature of farming conditions should have been considered while stockpiles started to run low, as farming contains can never be predicted or relied upon, thus causing the need to maintain high stockpiles of food. In consequence, the Great Leap Forward was not bound to fail, as it was a disaster due to uncontrollable environmental conditions as well as inefficiency in using and consuming resources, due to a lack of foresight about the unpredictability of weather cycles stemming from over optimism during the first year.

The claim that the Great Leap Forward was not inevitable can be further backed by the argument that Mao’s actions and the CCP’s course of action during the second five year plan led to its failure. For example, when the famine hit, the conditions could have been resolved by working towards ensuring a continuous and equitable allocation of food in China. However, instead of doing this, Mao kept on prioritising the need to industrialise and thus even when the famine hit, food was sent to the cities for the industrial workers to consume, in hopes that industrial productivity would not suffer by doing so. The same behavioural patterns were evident once again when the famine spread to urban areas and the CCP under Mao continued to export agricultural produce, instead of ensuring a continuous supply of food internally, letting Chinese starve to death instead of halting exports of produce.

Furthermore, the CCP’s policy of rationing food by only providing it if a worker's required hours of work were completed led to the Great Leap Forward’s failure as during the famine, the peasants were exhausted and lacked energy due to unusually low amounts of caloric intake. Thus, the productivity levels of farmers were bound to drop. Which is why, further restricting their food intake worsened the situation, as farmers resorted to eating tree barks, dogs and even cannibalism. Lastly, Mao’s foreign policy of self sufficiency and independence

from the soviet union resulted in Russian aid halting amidst the Great Leap Forward, putting a huge strain on China's economy and consequently further aggravating the situation. Even when millions of Chinese were dying, Mao refused to ask for foreign aid as he was adamant on not accepting defeat in front of the international community and wanted to save face for the CCP. Henceforth, the failure of the Great Leap Forward was largely due to wrong decisions made by Mao and the CPP during its implementation, as many of the issues that arose during the plan such as the famine could have been tackled through employing smart tactics and rational decisions.

The present relevance of the Great Leap Forward is that it has heavily influenced the line of thinking, and subsequently the policies of the current Chinese communist party. The decade of 1957-1966 is evaluated as a period of overall success in which the errors of the Leap are considered an aberration. This is said to have been a time when much of "the material and technological basis for modernising our country was largely established". (1) Even during the Great Leap, it is frequently pointed out, there was significant capital construction that ultimately contributed greatly to China's industrialization. Thus the GLF is viewed as a period in which the Party made drastic mistakes but ultimately was able to redeem itself through the established mechanisms of rectification and self-criticism. Post Maoist thoughts classify the GLF to have stirred up “communist wind”, which earns a premature transition to communism.

Furthermore, in ideological terms, the mistakes of the GLF are traced to the Leftist error of "subjectivism" on the part of the leadership. Party leaders fell into the trap of letting their own revolutionary aspirations overwhelm their understanding of the ideological constraints on what was possible to achieve. As a result, there was no careful investigation or experimentation, and the Leap "was frivolously launched by relying only on political ardour and subjective wishes". The CCP presently is adopting a framework that aims to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, particularly the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward. For instance, Xi Jinping ensures that China has a massive food reserve, by simultaneously producing enough food within China as well as importing additional food to ensure a reserve in case of famine or other food scarcities. Thus, the Great Leap Forward has impacted the psyche of Chinese leaders, which persists even now.

In conclusion, the statement that it was inevitable that the Great Leap Forward would be a disaster is true to a moderate extent as various inherent flaws in the plan led to its failure. However, this statement is not fully correct because a plethora of uncontrollable factors such as environmental problems as well as a misallocation of resources coupled with other inimical decisions during the plan’s implementation process, significantly affected its failure as well.

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