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The People's Republic, The Hundred Flowers and the Great Leap Forward

Peng Dehuai, backyard furnaces, industrial output, Mao Zedong, Great Leap

In 1956 Mao Zedong launched a campaign to expose the party to the criticism of Chinese intellectuals under the slogan “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom.” Mao was afraid that the revolutionary fervor of CCP members was waning, that they were losing touch with the people and becoming authoritarian bureaucrats. Although most intellectuals were cautious at first, Mao repeatedly urged people to speak up, and once the criticism had started, it became a torrent. In 1957 Mao and other party leaders abruptly changed course and launched the so-called Antirightist campaign on the critics for harboring rightist ideology. About half a million educated people lost their jobs and often their freedom, usually because something they had said during the Hundred Flowers period had been construed as anti-Communist.

Next Mao launched a radical development plan known as the Great Leap Forward. Mao announced the plan in November 1957 at a meeting of the leaders of the international Communist movement in Moscow, claiming that China would surpass Britain in industrial output within 15 years. Through the concerted hard work of hundreds of millions of people laboring together, he claimed, China would transform itself from a poor nation into a mighty one. In 1958, in a wave of utopian enthusiasm, the CCP combined agricultural collectives into gigantic communes, expecting huge increases in productivity. Throughout the country, communes, factories, and schools set up backyard furnaces in order to double steel production. As workers were mobilized to work long hours on these and other large-scale projects, they spent little time at home or in normal farm work.

Peng Dehuai, China’s minister of defense and a military hero, offered measured criticisms of the Great Leap policies at a 1959 party meeting. Mao was furious and forced the party to choose between Peng and himself. The CCP ultimately removed Peng from his positions of authority. Within a couple of years, the Great Leap had proved an economic disaster. Industrial production dropped by as much as 50 percent between 1959 and 1962. Grain was taken from the countryside on the basis of wildly exaggerated production reports, contributing, along with environmental calamities, to a massive famine from 1960 to 1962 in which more than 20 million people died.

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