China’s Great Leap Forward was one of the most ambitious socio-economic campaigns in history, but it came with a staggering death toll. In just a few years, tens of millions of people died as a result of famine, forced labor, and political violence.
This article examines the harrowing death toll and sheds light on the tragic consequences of the event. Prepare to be shocked and saddened by the stark realities of this dark chapter in China’s history.
The Death Toll in China’s Great Leap Forward
Most historians estimate that the death toll during China’s Great Leap Forward ranged between 15-43 million, and there are even some that have ventured higher than that. Many, if not most of these deaths were preventable, had it not been for the disastrous policies of Mao Zedong’s Communist Party.1
The Great Leap Forward lasted from 1958-1962. During this time the communist party sought to increase China’s grain yields and outputs as well as increase steel production and construction projects. The hope was to transform rural China out of an agrarian based economy similar to Japan during the Meiji Restoration.
The government did this by banning private land ownership and forcing rural farmers into state owned communes. A variety of factors contributed to this tragedy. Poor planning and farming policies led to arable land sitting unused.
The transfer of farmers to industrial workers left many fields without enough labor to harvest all the food. In addition, locust swarms ruined entire fields of crops, due to their natural predators having been killed off during the Four Pests Campaign. Famine became widespread as a result.
In addition despite the onset of famine, local authorities were under enormous pressure to report record yields. Because of this, the government redistributed food out of regions that were starving and sent it elsewhere. Even at the height of the famine, China was still a net exporter of grain.
The Great Leap Forward has gone down as one of the worst policies in history. The suffering ended only once the government reversed its policies and allowed grain to be imported again. Because of the widespread famines, its estimated that China’s population actually decreased between 1960 and 1961. Not only did mortality rates drastically rise, but birth rates drastically decreased as well.2
All told, the Great Leap Forward was a horrific event that was largely preventable had the appropriate policies been enacted.
1) Wemheuer, Felix. “Dealing with Responsibility for the Great Leap Famine in the People’s Republic of China.” The China Quarterly, no. 201, 2010, pp. 176–94. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20749353.
2) Peng, Xizhe. “Demographic Consequences of the Great Leap Forward in China’s Provinces.” Population and Development Review, vol. 13, no. 4, 1987, pp. 639–70. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1973026.