China Part II—
The legacy of the 'Great Leap Forward'

By John Tully

In this series of articles, John Tully discusses the evidence pointing towards a process of capitalist restoration in China. As reported in the first article (see China Part I in the October 1997 edition of The Militant), the 15th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in September 1997 rubber-stamped the decision of the party leadership for an increased tempo of 'market reform'.

Central to this 'reform' is the privatisation of the state-owned industrial sector. In a bold move, the number of these enterprises is to be reduced from 130,000 to 512. Yet the Congress, pivotal point though it undoubtedly is, did not come like a bolt from the blue; rather it is part of a trajectory that began in the late 1970s when the uncertainty following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 was resolved.

Whether or not China is already a capitalist state is a matter for debate, but the dialectical laws of motion of human societies indicate that sooner or later such a point will be reached if it has not already. The process is one not unlike the steady addition of salt to soup: sooner or later the soup will become inedible as quantity turns into quality. (The analogy comes from Trotsky in his book In Defence of Marxism.)

The unenviable legacy of Mao

When Mao finally died in 1976, he left an unenviable legacy for any government. The economy had been stagnant and even declining for over a decade during the so-called 'Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution'. Although this time is lauded by Maoists as a time of heroic class struggle, it was a disaster for China and compounded past calamities for which Mao was directly responsible. Food production suffered, with famines in many areas and industrial production plummeted. The schools and universities were either shut down or disrupted and the most capable hands and brains in the land were prevented from working.

Mao's decision to launch this ultra-left upheaval was prompted by his desire to get back at the more sober party leaders who were severely critical of the so-called 'Great Leap Forward' which Mao had launched after 1957.

Early gains of the Revolution

When the CCP triumphed over its Kuomintang foes in 1949, it was welcomed by most Chinese. It succeeded in uniting China as an independent country for the first time in over 100 years and brought peace and stability after decades of war. The land was taken from the landlords and divided up among the peasants. Large industry was nationalised and the major economic levers were in the hands of the new state. It was entirely possible that the new rulers could have harnessed the widespread goodwill of the population to build a new China with a strong industrial base and an efficient agriculture. More than that, the new Chinese workers' state could have embraced democratic liberties to further cement its foundations. Further, such a genuine workers' and peasants' revolution would have acted as an inextinguishable beacon for the oppressed masses of Asia and Africa and hastened the demise of imperialism.

Alas it was not to be. China did not have any home grown tradition of democracy (Mao's heroes and models were the autocratic Chinese emperors of antiquity). Also, the CCP had absorbed a massive dose of Stalinism which inoculated it against workers' democracy.

After the infamous 'Hundred Flowers' campaign of 1957 had 'lured the snakes from their lairs' and silenced any independent thinking both inside and outside the party, Mao launched the 'Great Leap Forward'. This, he claimed, would usher in full communism within four or five years.

The disaster of the 'Great Leap Forward'

This was an altogether ludicrous claim. Leaving aside the question of China's encirclement by hostile imperialist powers, the country had only a slight industrial base and an agricultural system that had changed little in a thousand years (in fact China did not have even one tractor factory until 1958).

Party leaders such as Liu Shaoqui, Deng Xiaoping and Zhou Enlai were appalled by the catastrophic consequences of the 'Leap'. In the countryside, forced collectivisation of peasant plots, combined with fanciful agronomic techniques, led on paper to phenomenal leaps in the production of food grains and other crops. Mao took a personal interest in the new methods, which included 'deep ploughing' and 'close planting' based on the doctrines of the so-called proletarian geneticist, Stalin's protege, the quack Lysenko. There were mass campaigns to exterminate insects, mice and sparrows, without regard for the possible ecological consequences. Food crops were planted in harsh upland environments and extra crops were planted despite the warning signs of soil exhaustion.

The reality was appalling. Until the Party archives are thrown open, the full death toll will not be known, but demographers have calculated that at least 25 to 35 million peasants died of starvation - and perhaps very many millions more. Moreover, although famines have been all too frequent in Chinese history as a result of floods or drought, this famine could not be blamed on any natural disaster.

Backyard furnaces

The other prong of Mao's Leap was a crash programme intended to make China rival the West in iron and steel production. Absurdly, this took the form largely of primitive backyard furnaces which smelted low grade iron. Peasants, workers and students were taken from their usual occupations to tend the furnaces. Household items - woks, pans and cutlery, along with railings and anything else made of steel - were melted down to meet production quotas of unusable iron. The crops actually rotted in the fields in many cases because the peasants were too busy smelting steel to meet their quotas.

The ecological effects of all of this were far-reaching. The Leap exacerbated a crisis that had been developing for many years before the Revolution. The smelting process often relied on charcoal, which was made from trees stripped on a colossal scale from sensitive watersheds. The results included widespread floods, droughts, and silting. Huge tracts of upland grassland never meant to be brought under the plough were ruined, with sad effects for the nomadic peoples who had grazed animals there.

Peng Dehuai pays the price

Yet few were brave enough to tell Mao to his face what was happening. The most prominent of those who did was Marshal Peng Dehuai, an army commander close to his peasant roots. He was to pay a heavy price for his temerity and courage; being condemned as a 'rightist' and imprisoned, tortured and finally killed in 1966 during Cultural Revolution. Yet the reality finally percolated into even Mao's brain and the Leap was brought to a halt and further catastrophe averted by the the ill-starred Liu Shaoqui.

Mao's stocks were very low after the 'leap' and some writers even derided him for the incompetent autocrat and ignoramus he was. Mao feared that the other party leaders would depose him and so launched a 'pre-emptive strike' to remove them from the party. One of those disgraced in this period was Deng Xiaoping, an energetic technocrat and former Red Army general who had been in the party since the days of the 'Long March'.

After a brief interregnum following Mao's death, the influence of the Maoist Gang of Four was smashed and Deng became paramount leader of the country. Many ordinary people (among them Jung Ching, the author of the acclaimed memoir Wild Swans) looked to Deng as a saviour who would restore some semblance of stability and order, along with industrial development and democratic rights. They have been sorely disappointed, for Deng's leadership was to bring turmoil of a different kind and culminate in the massacre of students and workers at Tienanmen Square in 1989.