Mao’s China Page

Section Compiled by Me and Holden

Credible Archive on Mao’s China

Good Study on The Great Leap Forward

Realities of Modern Day China and the “Capitalist Miracle”

Sources for our brief history of China:

  • China’s industry grew at up to 10% per year and transformed itself into a major industrial power without relying on exploitation or foreign assistance, and in the face of a hostile international environment. Agriculture grew by some 3 percent a year, slightly exceeding population growth. By 1970, the problem of adequately feeding China’s population had been solved. This was accomplished through integrated economic planning, a system of collective agriculture that promoted grassroots mobilization, flood control, steady investment in rural infrastructure, and the equitable distribution of food to peasants and rationing of essential foods so that all people were guaranteed their minimal requirements (Citation 1)
    • Though living standards remained low, and were for many at subsistence level, it is plain truth that except for the Great Leap Forward Years of 1959 and 1960 and the Cultural Revolution years of 1967 and 1968, Chinese economic growth was not only steady but also outpaced most developing countries. By 1976 China had laid down a sound industrial and agricultural base for an economic take off. These facts are proven and accepted by both Chinese and Western scholars in their macro studies (Meisner 1986, Lardy 1978, Rawski 1993, Chow 1985, Perkins 1985, and Field 1986) as well as micro case studies (Forster 2003, Bramall 1993 and Endicott 1989)
  • GDP Growth Rate (Citation 2) (Show the version that compares it to Capitalist countries)
  • China’s revolution of 1949-76 resulted in many improvements in life for the Chinese people. Between 1949 and 1975, life expectancy in socialist China more than doubled, from about 32 to 65 years. By the early 1970s, infant mortality rates in Shanghai were lower than in New York City (Citation 3)
  • More on China’s population (Citation 4)
  • From 1949-1978 the per hectare yield of land sown with food crops increased by 145.9% and total food production rose 169.6%. During this period China’s population grew by 77.7%. On these figures, China’s per capita food production grew from 204 kilograms to 328 kilograms in the period in question (Citation 5)
  • China’s agricultural production slowed because of natural causes (Citation 5)
    • Even according to figures released by the Deng Xiaoping regime, industrial production increased by 11.2% per year from 1952-1976 (by 10% a year during the alleged catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution)
  • In 1952 industry was 36% of gross value of national output in China. By 1975 industry was 72% and agriculture was 28%. It is quite obvious that Mao’s supposedly disastrous socialist economic policies paved the way for the rapid (but inegalitarian and unbalanced) economic development of the post-Mao era (Citation 6)
    • There is a good argument to suggest that the policies of the Great Leap Forward actually did much to sustain China’s overall economic growth, after an initial period of disruption. By 1961 with the Sino-Soviet split, it was clear that China was going to have to develop using its own resources and without being able to use a large amount of machinery and technological know-how imported from the Soviet Union.
  • There is a good argument to suggest that the policies of the Great Leap Forward actually did much to sustain China’s overall economic growth, after an initial period of disruption. At the end of the 1950s, it was clear that China was going to have to develop using its own resources and without being able to use a large amount of machinery and technological know-how imported from the Soviet Union.
  • Historical Context: In the late 1950s China and the USSR were heading for a divide. Partly, this was the ideological fallout that occurred following the death of Stalin. There had been many differences between Stalin and Mao. Among other things, Mao believed that Stalin mistrusted the peasants and over-emphasized the development of heavy industry.
    • The Great leap forward was an attempt at becoming more economically independent from the USSR.
  • Although problems and reversals occurred in the Great Leap Forward, it is fair to say that it had a very important role in the ongoing development of agriculture. Measures such as water conservancy and irrigation allowed for sustained increases in agricultural production, once the period of bad harvests was over. They also helped the countryside to deal with the problem of drought. Flood defenses were also developed. Terracing helped gradually increase the amount of cultivated area (Citation 7)
    • The idea was that rural industry would meet the needs of the local population. Rural workshops supported efforts by the communes to modernize agricultural work methods. Rural workshops were very effective in providing the communes with fertilizer, tools, other agricultural equipment and cement (Citation 7)
  • Rural industry established during the Great Leap Forward used labor-intensive rather than capital-intensive methods. As they were serving local needs, they were not dependent on the development of an expensive nation-wide infrastructure of road and rail to transport the finished goods.
    • In fact the supposedly wild, chaotic policies of the Great Leap Forward meshed together quite well, after the problems of the first few years. Local cement production allowed water conservancy schemes to be undertaken. Greater irrigation made it possible to spread more fertilizer. This fertilizer was, in turn, provided by the local factories. Greater agricultural productivity would free up more agricultural labour for the industrial manufacturing sector, facilitating the overall development of the country. (Citation 7)
  • Agriculture and small scale rural industry were not the only sector to grow during China’s socialist period. Heavy industry grew a great deal in this period too. Developments such as the establishment of the Taching oilfield during the Great Leap Forward provided a great boost to the development of heavy industry. A massive oil field was developed in China. (Citation 8)
  • One should be cautious in quoting claims by the post-Mao Chinese authorities that intend to denigrate the Mao era, so as not to fall into the trap that ‘it must be true since the Chinese themselves say so’. The instinct that ‘the Chinese would not say things bad about themselves unless they were true’ does not work all the time. Foster’s case study of Zhejiang is a good example to illustrate this point. The post-Mao authorities and elite intelligentsia in Zhejiang province condemn the Cultural Revolution by stating in the literature that the it caused ‘grave losses to economic construction’ and that: ‘the leftist policies caused the gross output of agriculture over four successive years (1968–71) to be lower than the that of 1967.’ But if one looks into the details one finds that ‘Zhejiang experienced double-digit rise over the following five years from 1969 to 1973. These were of the impressive magnitude of 19.2 per cent, 16.2 per cent, 15.4 per cent, 10.2 per cent and 11.5 per cent’ (Forster 2003: 147). The Cultural Revolution did not ‘cause the disaster to the provincial economy’ and there was ‘a rapid growth of rural industry’ (Forster 2003: 148)
  • How trustworthy are any of the death figures? As we have seen they were released during the early 1980s at a time of acute criticism of the Great Leap Forward and the People’s Communes. China under Deng was a dictatorship that tried to rigorously control the flow of information to its people. It would be reasonable to assume that a government that continually interfered in the reporting of public affairs by the media would also interfere in the production of statistics when it suited them. John Aird writing in 1982 stated that “The main reason so few national population data appear in Chinese sources, however, is central censorship. No national population figures can be made public without prior authorization by the State Council. Even officials of the SSB [State Statistical Bureau] cannot use such figures until they have been cleared” (J. Aird 1982)
  • In his famous 1965 book on China, A Curtain of Ignorance, Felix Greene says that he traveled through areas of China in 1960 where food rationing was very tight but he did not see mass starvation. He also cites other eyewitnesses who say the same kind of thing. It is likely, that in fact, famine did occur in some areas. However Greene’s observations indicate that it was not a nation-wide phenomenon on the apocalyptic scale suggested by Jasper Becker and others.
  • There were some proponents of the “massive death toll” story in the 1960s. However, as Felix Greene pointed out in A Curtain of Ignorance anti-communists in the 1950s and early 1960s made allegations about massive famines in China virtually every year. The story about the Great Leap Forward was only really taken seriously in the 1980s when the new Chinese leadership began to back the idea. It was this that has really given credibility in the west to those such as Becker and Jung Chang. The Chinese leadership began its attack on the Great Leap Forward in 1979. Deng moved against Maoists by directing the official press to attack them. (M. Meissner, 1996)
  • It is often said that Deng’s agricultural reforms improved the welfare of the peasantry. It is true that breaking up the communes led to a 5 year period of accelerated agricultural production. But this was followed by years of decline in per capita food production. (M. Meissner, 1996)
  • In fact, there is certainly evidence from a number of sources that a famine occurred in this period but the key question is was it a famine that killed 30 million people? This really would have been unprecedented. Although we are used to reading newspaper headlines like “tens of millions face starvation in African famine” it is unheard of for tens of millions to actually die in a famine. For example, the Bangladesh famine of 1974-75 is remembered as a deeply tragic event in that nation’s history. However, the official death toll for the Bangladesh famine was 30,000 (out of a single-year population of 76 million), although unofficial sources put the death toll at 100,000 (R. Sobhan ‘Politics of Food and Famine in Bangladesh)
    • Compare this to an alleged death toll of 30 million out of a single-year population calculated at around 660-670 million for the Great Leap Forward period. Proportionally speaking, the death toll in the Great Leap Forward is meant to be approximately 35 times higher than the higher estimated death toll for the Bangladesh famine
  • It is rather misleading to say that all “available evidence” demonstrates the validity of the massive deaths thesis. The real truth is that all estimates of tens of millions of Great Leap Forward deaths rely on figures for death rates for the late 1950s and early 1960s. There is only very uncertain corroboration for these figures from other statistics for the period.
  • After the Cultural Revolution was launched in the spring of 1966, politically conscious workers in China’s industrial centers watched events closely. Some made contact with local Red Guard groups and began to discuss their grievances with the top-down system of management that had been widely imposed in the early 1960s. One of the first groups to organize themselves in the factories was the “revolutionary technicians,” many of whom were former workers. They began to criticize the formally educated “technical authorities” in their plants who relied on Western or Soviet technical methods and refused to experiment or listen to workers’ suggestions for innovations (Andors, p. 163)
  • The Great Leap Forward in 1958 was an ambitious plan to increase industrial and agricultural production. It undertook radical social transformations and led to new levels of socialist consciousness. In one year, 750,000 collective farms were merged into 24,000 people’s communes, each of which was composed of dozens of villages and on average 5,000 households. The communes were not just economic units but new social organizations that combined political, educational, cultural and military functions. (Archive)
  • One of the advantages of the communes was its ability to avoid one of the mistakes that the Soviets made in their development. Many communes had cement factories in them. The Soviet Union had centralized them in the cities and as a result had to waiting until a highway system was developed before it could actually be shipped out to the countryside where it was needed the most. The Chinese Communists learned from this mistake and avoided it by creating cement factories in the communes. This could not be known about once it was attempted (Ibid)
  • The industries that emerged from the communes were worker owned and operated. Each worker had input into the operation of the facility. Obviously these workers had no experience in operating such facilities, they lacked the administrative skills. In order to teach these skills to the workers (who before the revolution were illiterate), a system of spare-time schools and colleges attached to factories was established. In some plants, 60 to 70 percent of the workforce was enrolled in these schools. Workers were given some time off work everyday or every week to learn these new skills. (Citation 9)
  • In factories and other workplaces, traditional forms of “one-man management” were dissolved. New “three-in-one” combinations of rank-and-file workers, technicians, and Communist Party members took responsibility for day-to-day management of factories and other types of work. Workers spent time in management and managers spent time working on the shop floor (Citation 10)
  • “Open-door research” was introduced: research institutes were spread to the countryside and involved peasants; technical laboratories literally opened their doors to workers; and universities set up extension labs in factories and neighborhoods. Popular primers made scientific knowledge available to the masses (Citation 11)
  • The universities instituted open enrollment: by the early 1970s, worker and peasant students made up the great majority of the university population. Educational resources were vastly expanded in the rural areas: for instance, middle-school enrollment rose from 15 to 58 million (Citation 12)
  • The Cultural Revolution allowed an explosion of creativity among the masses: short stories, poetry, paintings and sculpture, music and dance. Cultural troupes and film units multiplied in the countryside. Between 1972 and 1975, Beijing held four national fine arts exhibitions (with 65% of exhibited works created by amateurs) that attracted an audience of 7.8 million, a scale never reached before the Cultural Revolution (Citation 13)
  • Perhaps most surprising is the fact that the country’s rapid growth has failed to generate adequate employment opportunities. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), total urban (regular) manufacturing employment actually declined over the period 1990-2002, from 53.9 million to 37.3 million (Citation 14)
    • And while there was a small increase in total urban employment, almost all the growth was in irregular employment, meaning casual-wage or self-employment – typically in construction, cleaning and maintenance of premises, retail trade, street vending, repair services or domestic services
    • More specifically, while total urban employment over this 13-year period grew by 81.7 million, 80 million of that growth was in irregular employment. As a result, irregular workers now comprise the largest single urban employment category – much as in Africa and Latin America where such an outcome is blamed on stagnant capital accumulation. In addition, the ILO reports declining labor force participation rates and double digit unemployment rates for urban residents
  • China’s growth in the past decade has been overwhelmingly fueled by fixed asset investment (such as infrastructure development), which has further exploded since the launch of the 2008 stimulus program, accounting for more than 90% of economic growth in 2009. Over 100 extremely ambitious infrastructure mega-projects are currently being undertaken. Chinese cement consumption and construction spending has soared to truly bubble-like proportions as scores of extravagant and massive government buildings are being built in outer China, roads are dug up and rebuilt just to generate economic activity and cities binge on debt to build jaw-dropping infrastructure projects at all costs. China’s mad rush to build infrastructure projects has led to cut corners and shoddy workmanship, such as on the world’s longest sea bridge that was closed one week after opening due to safety problems, the much-publicized high-speed train’s disastrous crash and electrical problems and a new highway that collapsed after a test run
  • The reform process has taken an especially heavy toll on state workers. According to Chinese government figures, state-owned enterprises laid off 30 million workers over the period 1998- 2004. As of June 2005, 21.8 million of them were struggling to survive on the government’s “minimum living allowance” – the basic welfare grant given to all poor urban residents. In June 2005, this allowance was approximately $19 a month
  • Foreign capital also enjoys a greatly strengthened role in the Chinese economy. The share of foreign manufacturers in China’s total manufacturing sales grew from 2.3 per cent in 1990 to 31.3 per cent in 2000 (Citation 15)
    • Just to get an idea of how much China is relying on investors, foreign capital holds a majority of assets in 21 out of 28 of the country’s leading industrial sectors (Cheng, 2007)
  • One consequence of this development is that China’s economic growth has become increasingly dependent on foreign produced exports. Foreign firms dominate China’s export activity: their share of China’s total exports grew from 2 per cent in 1985 to 58 per cent in 2005 (and stands at 88 per cent for high tech exports) (Citation 16)
  • There has been job growth in the private sector, especially at firms producing for export. However, most of the new jobs are low paid with poor working conditions. ‘Even after doubling between 2002–2005, the average manufacturing wage in China was only 60 US cents an hour, compared with $2.46 an hour in Mexico (McClenahen, 2006)
  • A report on labor practices in China by Verite Inc., a US company that advises transnational corporations on responsible business practices, found that ‘systemic problems in payment practices in Chinese export factories consistently rob workers of at least 15 per cent of their pay. Workplace safety is an even greater problem. According to government sources, about 200 million workers labor under ‘hazardous’ conditions. ‘Every year there are more than 700,000 serious work-related injuries nation-wide, claiming 130,000 lives (Citation 17) (Ciation 18)
  • One critical but often overlooked explanation for China’s manufacturing competitiveness is that approximately 70 per cent of manufacturing work is done by migrants. Over the last 25 years, some 150-200 million Chinese were driven by economic conditions to move from the countryside to urban areas in search of employment (Citation 19)
  • As a consequence, migrant workers are easily exploitable. Employment conditions at Foxconn, a Taiwanese-owned electronics and computer parts manufacturing subcontractor for firms such as Apple and Dell, are representative. Foxconn employs over 200,000 workers in China, a majority in Shenzhen (a major manufacturing center in south China). Its assembly line workers in Shenzhen earn approximately $32 for a 60 hour work week (along with company provided dormitory housing and meals). Apple-hired investigators of a Foxconn plant that builds iPods found that managers routinely used corporal punishment to discipline workers, ‘and that workers labored more than six consecutive days 25 per cent of the time,’ despite the fact that Chinese law ‘requires at least one day off each week. (Simons, 2007)
  • The overall effectiveness of Chinese labor policies (which are primarily designed to boost export competitiveness) is well illustrated by recent trends in wages and consumption. Chinese wages as a share of GDP have fallen from approximately 53 per cent of GDP in 1992 to less than 40 per cent in 2006 (The Economist, 2007)
  • China’s growth and industrial transformation has also generated great wealth, leading to an explosion of inequality and the formation (or solidification) of new class relations. An Asian Development Bank study of 22 East Asian developing countries concluded that China had become the region’s second most unequal country, trailing only Nepal. This is not surprising considering that over a roughly 10-year period (from the early 1990s to the early 2000s) China recorded the region’s second highest increase in inequality, again trailing only Nepal (Citation 20)
  • According to the Boston Consulting Group, China had 250,000 US dollar millionaire households (excluding the value of primary residence) in 2005. Although this group made up only 0.4 per cent of China’s total households, it held 70 per cent of the country’s wealth (Wu, 2007)
  • China’s human development trends from 1970-2010: http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/hdrp_2010_02.pdf (See page 35)
  • China’s economic experience reveals much about the nature of contemporary capitalism. China is considered a model developer; the country has achieved a sustained and rapid rate of growth, attracted massive inflows of productive capital, and is exporting ever more sophisticated manufactured goods. Yet, these accomplishments have not translated into meaningful gains for growing numbers of Chinese workers. In fact, workers in China face living and working conditions increasingly similar to those in Latin America and Africa, regions where most countries are considered development failures. Therefore, it appears that the answer to worker problems in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere for that matter, is not to be found in supporting policies designed to achieve ‘successful’ capitalist development, especially those designed to replicate the Chinese experience
  • Growing numbers of people in China are openly and directly challenging their country’s growth strategy. Even more noteworthy, these challenges are now fueling political discussions and debates (many of which are taking place on electronic chat rooms and bulletin boards) about the nature and significance of Mao era experiences and socialism (Gao, 2008)