The Great Leap Forward: The Devastating Human Cost of Mao’s ‘Visionary’ Economic Plan

The Great Leap Forward: The Devastating Human Cost of Mao’s ‘Visionary’ Economic Plan


Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” is considered to be one of the deadliest political campaigns in human history. In just a few years, millions of Chinese citizens lost their lives due to a combination of famine, disease, and political violence. This article will explore the human cost of the “Great Leap Forward,” as described in the book “Mao’s Great Famine” by historian Frank Dikotter.

The Great Leap Forward: An Overview

The Great Leap Forward was a social and economic campaign launched by Mao Zedong, the leader of the Communist Party of China, in 1958. The aim of this campaign was to transform China from an agricultural society to an industrialized society through rapid industrialization and collectivization. However, the campaign was marked by disastrous policies and decisions, including the forced mobilization of the population to create backyard steel furnaces and the collectivization of agriculture.

As a result, the agricultural output declined sharply, leading to a severe famine that lasted from 1959 to 1961, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 15-45 million people. In addition to the famine, the Great Leap Forward also had a significant impact on China’s economy and society. The economic output declined, and the industrialization efforts failed to achieve the desired results. The campaign also led to the persecution of those who opposed the government’s policies, resulting in imprisonment, torture, and executions.

The Great Leap Forward is considered one of the deadliest human-made disasters in history. Despite its disastrous outcomes, the Great Leap Forward remains a significant event in Chinese history, representing both the ambition of the Chinese government to modernize the country and the devastating consequences of failed policies.

The Origins of the “Great Leap Forward”

In 1958, Mao Zedong launched the “Great Leap Forward,” a campaign aimed at rapidly transforming China’s economy and society. Mao’s vision was to industrialize China in just a few years, surpassing the economic achievements of the Western powers. To achieve this goal, Mao implemented a series of radical policies, including the collectivization of agriculture, the mobilization of peasants to work in industrial factories, and the construction of massive infrastructure projects.

The Human Cost of the “Great Leap Forward”

The consequences of Mao’s policies were devastating. Agricultural productivity plummeted, as peasants were forced to abandon traditional farming methods in favor of collective agriculture. The resulting famine led to mass starvation, with millions of people dying from hunger and disease. In addition to the famine, the “Great Leap Forward” also led to widespread political violence, as Mao’s supporters persecuted and executed those who opposed his policies.

According to Dikotter’s research, the death toll of the “Great Leap Forward” was staggering. He estimates that between 1958 and 1962, at least 45 million people died due to the policies of Mao’s regime. This figure is higher than the total number of fatalities during World War I and is comparable to the number of deaths in World War II.

The Legacy of the “Great Leap Forward”

The “Great Leap Forward” was a human tragedy of epic proportions. It left a lasting impact on Chinese society, with millions of families torn apart by the loss of loved ones. It also had a profound impact on the global community, as the world became aware of the brutal reality of Mao’s regime.

Today, China has made significant progress in terms of economic development and social stability. However, the legacy of the “Great Leap Forward” remains a dark chapter in Chinese history, and the memory of those who suffered and died during that time should never be forgotten.


The “Great Leap Forward” was a catastrophic failure that cost the lives of millions of Chinese citizens. The famine, disease, and political violence that occurred during that period were a direct result of Mao’s radical policies. While China has made significant progress in the years since the “Great Leap Forward,” it is important to remember the human cost of this tragedy and to work to ensure that such a disaster never happens again.

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