In 1958 Mao inaugurated the Great Leap Forward, a disastrous attempt to rapidly industrialize, collectivize agriculture on an enormous scale and develop China though the construction of massive earthworks and irrigation projects. As part of the "walking on two legs" initiative," Mao believed that "revolutionary zeal and cooperative effort would transform the Chinese landscape into a productive paradise." The same idea would be resurrected later by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

One of Mao's goals during the Great Leap Forward was for China to surpass Britain in steel production in less than five years. Some scholars claim Mao was inspired by the factories he saw in the Soviet Union, and the Great Leap Forward was an attempt by Mao to overtake the Soviet Union so that he could establish himself as leader of the world Communist movement.

Mao hoped to achieve this by redistributed labor from large industrial complexes to small backyard factories modeled after 8th century smelters, where peasants could melt down their cooking pots to make high-grade steel. Mao's followers were expected to chant, "Long live the people's communes!" and "Strive to complete and surpass the production responsibility of 12 million tons of steel!"
During the Great Leap Forward, farmers were encouraged to make steel instead of grow crops, peasants were forced onto unproductive communes and grain was exported at the time people were starving. Millions of pots and pans and tools was turned into useless slag. Entire mountainsides were denuded to provide wood for the smelters. Villager stripped remaining forests for food and ate most of China’s birds. People went hungry because they had melted down their agricultural tools and spent time in the backyard smelters rather than in the fields tending their crops. Crop yields also declined because Mao ordered farmers to grow crops using the dubious practices of close planting and deep plowing.

In Mao’s Great Famine , Dutch scholar Frank Dikotter, wrote: “In the pursuit of a utopian paradise, everything was collectivized, as villagers were herded together in giant communes which heralded the advent of communism. People in the countryside were robbed of their work, their homes, their land, their belongings and their livelihood. Food, distributed by the spoonful in collective canteens according to merit, became a weapon to force people to follow the party's every dictate. Irrigation campaigns forced up to half the villagers to work for weeks on end on giant water-conservancy projects, often far from home, without adequate food and rest. The experiment ended in the greatest catastrophe the country had ever known, destroying tens of millions of lives.”

Great Leap "At least 45 million people died unnecessarily between 1958 and 1962. The term 'famine', or even 'Great Famine', is often used to describe these four to five years of the Maoist era, but the term fails to capture the many ways in which people died under radical collectivization. The blithe use of the term 'famine' also lends support to the widespread view that these deaths were the unintended consequence of half-baked and poorly executed economic programs. Mass killings are not usually associated with Mao and the Great Leap Forward, and China continues to benefit from a more favourable comparison with the devastation usually associated with Cambodia or the Soviet Union. But as the fresh evidence ... demonstrates, coercion, terror and systematic violence were the foundation of the Great Leap Forward.

"Thanks to the often meticulous reports compiled by the party itself, we can infer that between 1958 and 1962 by a rough approximation 6 to 8 per cent of the victims were tortured to death or summarily killed - amounting to at least 2.5 million people. Other victims were deliberately deprived of food and starved to death. Many more vanished because they were too old, weak or sick to work - and hence unable to earn their keep. People were killed selectively because they were rich, because they dragged their feet, because they spoke out or simply because they were not liked, for whatever reason, by the man who wielded the ladle in the canteen. Countless people were killed indirectly through neglect, as local cadres were under pressure to focus on figures rather than on people, making sure they fulfilled the targets they were handed by the top planners.
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