Unbridled fixation: why it took until late 1960 for the Chinese Communist Party to decide to retreat from the Great Leap Forward

Mark Gayn, Unkown, 1965, courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library

Author: Yiwei Deng

Sub-editor: Charlotte Allan

The Great Leap Forward (GLF), was a utopian campaign launched by China’s supreme leader Mao Zedong in late 1957. While designed to industrialise China, it caused a death toll of approximately 45 million in the countryside by 1962. The highest annual rural mortality rate occurred in 1960, suggesting the casualties would have been significantly reduced if the Party effectively retreated from the GLF in mid-1958 when food shortages first emerged in various provinces. The political arrangement that was dominated by Mao’s ideological obsessions with the GLF was the fundamental cause of the Party’s delay in retreating from the GLF until late 1960. The GLF’s organisational structure- administrative decentralisation- removed the Party’s objective channel of knowing about its actual effects on agriculture. Crucially, Mao’s fixation on the GLF rendered party members of all levels unwilling or unable to inform Mao of the agricultural collapse and mass starvation resulting from the GLF. This manifested as local Party cadres’ concealment of the ongoing famines, and the senior Party members’ acquiescence in trusting the falsified local reports. Since pushing forward the GLF, Mao had exploited his authority to become the only one capable of altering the policy trajectory, his ignorance about the urgency to dismantle the GLF then ultimately caused the Party’s delay in its abandonment. 

The GLF’s administrative decentralisation removed the institutional constraint that used to guarantee against unaccountable policy feedback, forming an intrinsic obstacle to the Party’s final retreat from the GLF. After finishing the First Five Year Plan in 1957, the Party started envisaging a developmental model that was an alternative to the Soviets over-centralised economic model that left China’s economic stagnation unresolved. While decentralising the economy was on the Party leadership’s agenda, the decentralisation did not grant managers-technocrats within the production units more autonomy. For Mao, the intellectuals’ criticism against the Party (during the Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1957) indicated their ‘counter-revolutionary’ nature. Therefore, he launched an Anti-Rightist Campaign during which the professional stratum was deprived of authority, and the notion of expertise itself was disparaged as superstition. For Mao, the alternative developmental model he advocated would ‘rectify bureaucratic airs and put politics in command’, attesting to the GLF’s anti-professionalism essence. From early 1958 onwards, Mao translated his anti-professionalism into the directive to abolish the state management and planning system. The responsibility of compiling agricultural statistics on actual and targeted production thus shifted from the State Statistical Bureau (SSB) to local Party committees. These committees were staffed by cadres who, for Mao, were most competent in fulfilling the GLF’s strategy of mass mobilisation. This replacement of the SSB’s periodic reporting system by localities’ typical sampling degenerated statistics work into an ‘ethnographic enterprise’, leaving the Party leadership without any systematic means to verify the received data: from late 1957 to early 1958, commune cadres’ exaggeration of the grain and steel campaigns’ outputs thus went unchecked by the central government. Consequently, this falsified data encouraged Mao to direct the expansion of utopian projects such as establishing household backyard furnaces and people’s communal dining halls. Even from mid -1958 onwards when the GLF’s deficiencies became apparent, the constant availability of fabricated output provided ammunition for Mao to insist on the GLF’s feasibility. As such, the GLF’s administrative decentralisation marked by statistical breakdown was an intrinsic factor in the Party’s postponement in retreating from the GLF. 

Ideologically obsessed with the GLF, Mao trivialised the observed GLF’s deficiencies and failed to initiate its abandonment at an early stage.  From mid-1958 to early 1959, despite the rampant fabricated policy feedback, Mao still received scattered local reports revealing that the bumper harvest claims were untrue and that the state grain procurement could not be fulfilled. Nevertheless, while Mao showed certain attempts to rein in the GLF’s excesses such as decreasing procurement quotas, he believed that the GLF was fundamentally correct. Accompanying this was Mao’s ‘remorseless logic’ that since the GLF policies’ implementation must have generated adequate grain in the countryside, the reasons why the state’s grain requisitioning could not be fulfilled was due to peasants’ grain-hoarding and the grassroots cadre’s operational incompetence. Therefore, Mao failed to recognise that there was a genuine underproduction caused by the GLF’s fallacious rationale that the masses’ revolutionary consciousness could replace capital investment and expertise to achieve industrialisation. 

Another example of how Mao’s psychological involvement with the GLF led him to dismiss well-founded opposition against his belief and prolonged the GLF was the Defence Minister Peng Dehuai’s downfall. In mid-1959, Peng sent a letter to Mao arguing for the GLF’s unsustainability based on his observation in Hunan that the rural small-scale industrial projects in the countryside diverted the manpower needed for farming. Peng then advocated a ‘systematic’ re-evaluation of the policies. However, for Mao, since the GLF was a developmental vision derived from his understanding of Marxism, he interpreted Peng’s criticism as a challenge to his authority, and publicly condemned it as ‘a plot to split the Party.’  Rather than continuing the trend of partially retrenching the GLF, Mao ushered in a re-radicalisation of the GLF from late 1959 onwards and stifled criticism against it by re-launching anti-rightist movements. Notably, since the Returned Student group was marginalised in the power struggle in 1943, Mao had possessed ‘near-absolute power’ within the Party. Mao’s failure to respond meaningfully to the emerging GLF’s deficiencies was thus generative in motivating and cowing Party members within the top leadership and of the local levels into similar kinds of unresponsiveness. Therefore, Mao’s lack of initiative to dismantle the GLF was the essential cause of the Party’s delay in its dismantlement. 

Mao’s obsession with the GLF rendered its administrators unwilling to inform him of the ongoing mass starvation occurring throughout the country. The concealment of the administrative cadres at both the provincial and grassroots level was the direct cause of the Party’s delay in dismantling the GLF.  Some scholars suggest Mao knowingly starved millions of peasants to guarantee resources for urban livelihoods and industries during the GLF. While the urban-rural discrepancy indeed existed, such assertion does not withstand historical scrutiny; available archival documents suggest that Mao did not receive adverse information revealing the famines’ genuine scale in the countryside from late-1959 to mid-1960. Nonetheless, the key to understanding how Mao prolonged the GLF does not correlate with whether Mao was genuinely misguided by false reporting, but how Mao enabled and incentivised the localities’ concealment of famines. Mao thwarted the CCP’s institutionalisation in the 1950s. While the local Party secretaries’ autocratic style of leadership had hindered the Party to establish a modernised bureaucracy since the PRC’s establishment, Mao’s unwillingness to be restricted by collective decision-making procedures emboldened them to make decisions dictatorially. Before the GLF’s launch, the provincial Party secretaries had possessed absolute authority unrestrained by any legalised structure at the local levels. Moreover, the provincial purges in 1957 as part of the Anti-Rightist campaign replaced governors who preferred moderate economic policies with Maoist loyalists. Therefore, these newly promoted Party secretaries willingly attached to Mao’s discourse and extended it to the extreme, viewing the commune Party cadres who asked for food aid relief as ‘rightist opportunists’ committing unforgivable ideological mistakes. A logical outcome of having them supervising the GLF was their desperate attempt to conceal the mass starvation for fear of losing their privileges when the GLF was abolished. Symptomatic of this occurred in the Xinyang Prefecture where the local Party members deployed local militia to block exits to the region from October 1959 to January 1960, in an attempt to prevent starving villagers from divulging the ongoing famines. Such concealment was sponsored by the provincial Party secretary Wu Zhipu. As Mao tended to award those who displayed enthusiasm for the GLF, most of the provincial leaders kept fleshing out Mao’s utopianism through reassuring him that most communal mess halls could be maintained, and undersupply solved until late 1960 when the economy had been on the edge of collapse. Thomas Bernstein aptly suggests that ‘Mao was caught in a web of deception of his own making,’ as localities’ unwillingness to report the deteriorating food shortage, which was incentivised by Mao, directly causing his ignorance about the imperativeness of dismantling the GLF and the Party’s delay in abandoning it. 

Economic planners in the Party leadership divested themselves of the ability to inform Mao of the urgency to abandon the GLF. This finalised the Party’s inability to retreat from the GLF. From 1959 to 1960, the senior officials did not attempt to verify the received agricultural figures, effectively acquiescing in the localities’ concealment of famine.  It was understandable that Party members, such as Tan Zhenlin, who were only elevated by Mao to the Politburo due to their expressed enthusiasm on the GLF, forbade themselves from doubting it. However, economist specialists such as Chen Yun and Zhou Enlai, whose dedication to moderate agricultural collectivisation in the 1956-57 “Opposing Rash Advance” campaign indicated they must have understood the GLF’s fallaciousness throughout, also did not propose the GLF’s abandonment. Their silence was only explainable by the downgrading of economic planners concurrent with the GLF’s launch. In mid-1958, Mao’s claim that the ‘Opposing Rash Advance’ Campaign was ‘right-opportunist’ pressured the campaign’s architects to make self-criticism publicly at the Eighth Party Congress, with Zhou asserting ‘Chairman Mao was the representative of truth in building socialism’. The reason why these planners did not attempt to organise opposition was that the CCP’s Leninist hierarchical structure made repudiating the Party’s Chairman unimaginable; the planners knew that they only had the leeway to persuade Mao with their own policy advocacy when Mao still displayed ambivalence, whereas Mao’s unambiguous directives should always be obeyed. The planners’ submissiveness was also reinforced by Mao’s manipulation of ideology. When Mao exploited his authority as the Party’s theoretician to label policies he disliked as ‘anti-socialist,’ this rendered understanding towards which policies were following the ‘correct mass line’ elusive. Accordingly, the supposed traditional Party norms of open policy debate vanished as the top leaders became reluctant to propose policies. At the Lushan Conference, Mao’s condemnation of Peng as ‘non-Marxist’ due to his proposal of dismantling the GLF informed the senior officials that he was determined to push forward the GLF and doubts about the GLF were deemed as subversive of the Party.  This cowed them into blind adherence to the GLF, manifested as Li Xiannian’s flattery to the people’s communes, or into self-imposed detachment from engaging in domestic economic policymaking, an example of which was Chen Yun’s repetitive sick leaves from 1958-61. While the top planners could have conducted local investigations to discover the widespread local famines and prompt Mao to take the corrective measures, their passivity, induced by Mao, finalised the Party’s delay in dismantling the GLF. 

The CCP only abandoned the GLF in late 1960 after Mao realised the widespread food shortages and verified death tolls across regions. As the supreme leader whose actions wielded productive power to affect Party members across all levels, Mao trivialised negative reports and suppressed criticisms against the GLF when ominous signs first emerged in early 1958. Since the GLF’s administrative decentralisation disabled the institutional constraint to obstruct falsified policy feedback, the responsibility to provide accountable policy evaluation had shifted to the GLF’s administrators since late 1957. However, Mao’s obsession with the GLF incentivised the administrative cadres of provincial and grassroots levels to exaggerate output statistics and conceal the famines out of opportunism and fear. Mao’s intolerance of dissent against the GLF also made the top Party leaders refrain from participating in domestic economic decision-making and verifying the localities’ reports. The collective failure of Party cadres of all ranks to inform Mao of the damages the GLF had caused to rural livelihood then, in turn, postponed Mao’s understanding of the urgency to dismantle the GLF. Therefore, the political arrangement that Mao’s obsession with the GLF dominated all Party members and the policy course was the root cause of the Party’s delay in retreating from the GLF until the agricultural collapse had become undeniable.

Image credit

Mark Gayn, untitled, 1965, courtesy of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.

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