Mao’s Great Leap Forward & How It Killed Millions

The policy that led to the deaths of tens of millions. What was the Great Leap Forward, and why was it so disastrous?

Feb 16, 2024By James Keating, BA History
mao great leap forward killed millions


From the introduction of rudimentary backyard furnaces to unproven, experimental agricultural techniques being implemented nationwide, the Great Leap Forward was a period of appalling decision-making that marked Mao’s transition into dictatorship. “The Four Pests Campaign” is just one of many questionable policies in which sparrows and other targeted pests were culled in an attempt to increase crop yield, however predictably causing ecological imbalance and ultimate disaster. The whirlwind of bad policies coinciding with environmental bad fortune, as well as the stubborn refusal of assistance from Chairman Mao, led to what is likely the single deadliest famine in human history.


The Preliminary Ambition

rice field china 1958
A Rice Field in China at the beginning of the Great Leap Forward, 1958. Source: The New York Times


In January 1958, Mao revealed his plan for the Great Leap Forward. He believed that China should be able to “walk on two legs” once it had developed its heavy and light industry. So inspired by the USSR’s plan to overtake US industrial output within 15 years, he proclaimed China would do the same, only setting the UK’s industrial capacity as their goal instead.


Potentially influenced by the success of the first five-year plan, Mao’s vision was ambitious. He not only wanted to shift the agrarian and industrial balance fundamentally but also to do it with socialist ideals in mind. Peasants were already gradually being formed into “mutual-aid teams” of 10-15 households and later into “higher-co-operatives” of 100-300. However, in 1958, private ownership was abolished outright, and families were forced into state-controlled communes. Mao quickly demanded that these communes increase grain output while simultaneously developing industrial output through crude rural industrialization. The Chinese government viewed cheap human labor from its vast rural populace as underutilized in production. This was the government’s attempt to compensate for genuine capital investment in its industry.


In 1955, Mao stated his feeling that socialist construction should achieve “greater, faster, and more economical” results, which led to “rash advances,” a term encompassing economic mismanagement, overconfidence, and ultimately overspending, previously recognized and overturned through the first-five-year plan. Those who outlined their skepticism of any potential overextension were accused of not upholding the “class struggle” and were, therefore, opponents of the “cult of Mao.”


The Great Leap Forward in Action

backyard furnaces in action
Backyard furnaces in action during the Great Leap Forward. Source: Bloomberg

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


The Great Chinese Famine, the deadliest famine in human history, came from poor policy implementation, absolutist Mao doctrine, and sheer overconfidence. In a 1958 Politburo meeting, it was announced that steel production was projected to double in a year, with most of this increase coming from newly implemented backyard steel furnaces.


Backyard steel furnaces were introduced in every commune as well as urban neighborhoods on Mao’s order, despite his absence of any metallurgic knowledge. In these rudimentary furnaces, “scrap” was to be melted in hopes of reaching new steel production targets. However, these targets were unrealistically lofty, and personal belongings such as pots and pans were sacrificed to try to meet them.


A consequence of these backyard furnaces and their targets was later to prove deadly, as many male agricultural workers were forced to abandon harvests to help produce iron, thus reducing harvests in a country with a rocketing population. All these sacrifices for the sake of steel were in vain, as the output was largely low-quality pig iron, which didn’t provide much value. Mao would learn much later that high-quality iron required large factories for production. The terror during Mao’s “Hundred Flowers Campaign” in 1956 likely meant even those with expertise who could have foreseen the plan was doomed before its implementation were too fearful to announce any protest.


soviet agronomist trofim lysenko
Soviet Agronomist Trofim Lysenko. Source: Atlas Obscura


Further disastrous policies were implemented in the agricultural sector. Now-infamous and widely discredited Soviet agronomist Trofim Lysenko’s controversial ideas to increase crop yield were adopted and implemented by Mao as part of the Great Leap Forward. Close cropping, in which seeds were sown more densely than normal, and deep plowing were both mistaken and ineffective ideas. As well as this, moderately productive land was left unplanted, concentrating manure and labor on only the most fertile land. These ideas led to a decrease in grain production despite their focused efforts. Irrigation systems were also built but without input from trained engineers due to Mao’s distrust of intellectuals.


Another underlying policy issue that, in turn, caused further unnecessary casualties was the treatment of peasants in communes. The commune system and the ban on private holdings destroyed the maneuverability of their traditional economy. Food was at first free in the communes until the supply became throttled. Peasants were at the mercy of party officials, often being exposed to “criticism sessions” in which intimidation tactics and beatings ensued. Around 6 to 8% of deaths during the Great Leap Forward were caused by torture.


Ralph Thaxton, professor at Brandeis University and author of China Turned Rightside Up: Revolutionary Legitimacy in the Peasant World, wrote, “Blows to the body caused internal injuries that, in combination with physical emaciation and acute hunger, could induce death.”


This perfect storm of incompetence, fear, and arrogance led to the deaths of varied estimates of between 15 and 55 million people in what is most likely human history’s deadliest famine.


The Great Chinese Famine

crowds rush for cheap rice
Crowds rush a government station selling cheap rice. Source: ThoughtCo


The throttle on the food supply was further destructive due to the recent improvements the country had been exposed to in medicine. Infant mortality decreasing and life expectancy increasing led to an even greater demand for food, and so, in turn, the lack of food caused even more deaths than it would have done in the decades prior. So much of the available labor being moved to industrial endeavors meant much of the harvest went to rot as it wasn’t even collected in some areas.


Due to the fear instilled by the previous waves of terror and the ludicrously optimistic targets, local officials were under pressure to report record harvests supposedly caused by innovations in agricultural policy. These officials would further their exaggerations to compete with one another to further their careers. This would prove to be a massive factor leading to the famine. The excesses that were reported meant the state continued exporting massive amounts of grain while its peasants starved, somewhat similarly, although not as maliciously, as Stalin’s high-handed export of 1.8 million tons of grain during the Holodomor.


Some environmental factors may have, although not significantly, contributed to the famine. A 1959 drought and flooding of the Yellow River affected some parts of China. As well as this, locust swarms were more prevalent due to the somewhat ludicrous “Four Pests Campaign,” in which sparrows (natural predators of locusts), among other pests, were targeted for elimination due to their transfer of disease and pestilence.


four pests campaign poster
Chinese propaganda poster supporting the “Four Pests Campaign.” Source: The World of Chinese


Conditions during the famine were horrendous. Author Yan Lianke claims that during his upbringing in Henan at this time, he was taught to “recognize the most edible kinds of bark and clay by his mother… when there was no more clay, he learned that lumps of coal could appease the devil in his stomach, for at least a little longer.” There were also oral reports of human cannibalism in various forms throughout the country. However, there is little official documentation of such cases.


Remarkably, and perhaps to maintain appearances, the policies of the Great Leap Forward remained in place until January 1961. At the Ninth Plenum of the 8th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, the reversal of these policies finally began. As well as this, grain exports were stopped, and imports began from Australia and Canada. This reduced the impact of food shortages, although mainly in coastal cities.


Mao’s Culpability in the Great Leap Forward


For many, this period of Mao’s leadership and his part in the famine was the point where Mao became a ruthless, self-serving dictator rather than the visionary revolutionary that had first risen to power.


portrait chairman mao
Chairman Mao continued to lead China until his death in 1976. Source:


In January 1962, at the “Seven Thousand Cadres Conference,” Mao refused to acknowledge his culpability surrounding the famine. He deflected, blaming “rightists” and poor implementation of policy. In efforts to consolidate personal power, in 1963, he initiated the Socialist Education Movement and, in 1966, the Cultural Revolution. Both movements purged opponents of Mao’s ideas and his cult of personality, thus strengthening his position after it had been weakened by the Great Leap Forward’s abhorrent failure.


As well as this, Mao’s refusal to admit that a famine was ravaging the country to keep up appearances internationally also caused further unnecessary loss of life. During a conference in May 1962, John F. Kennedy said about the situation in China, “There has been no indication of any expression of interest or desire by the Chinese Communists to receive any food from us.” Foreign aid offers by other countries, such as Japan, were also refused.


After the failures of the Great Leap Forward, the pace of industrialization slowed, and focus was placed on the already more developed coastal cities and the production of consumer goods. During plans for the third five-year plan, Mao finally acknowledged to some extent the overambition that played a part in the failure of the Great Leap Forward: “best to do less and well.”


The catastrophic loss of millions of lives caused in this period was due to lingering terror, rash overconfidence, and uninformed policymaking. It marked Mao Zedong’s shift into dictatorship. All of the Great Leap Forward’s policies were ultimately reversed and denounced, even under the supervision of a stubbornly in-denial Chairman Mao, only further marking them as an utter failure.

Author Image

By James KeatingBA HistoryI hold a degree in History from the University of Liverpool and have always loved reading non-fiction in my spare time. My specific interests mainly lie in Russian history but I have also been fascinated with biographies outside of Russia from the biggest names in history such as Frida Kahlo or Oliver Cromwell.