In 1953, Mao launched the first five year plan. The aim of this plan was to build up China’s failing industry and its backward economy. The first plan focused solely on heavy industries like steel and iron production, and neglected light industries. In terms of production, the first five year plan was a great success. It had managed to double the production of coal, cement and machinery; triple production of oil and quadruple production of steel. As incredible as these figures sound, they didn’t actually mean much when compared to industrialised nations like Britain as China started off with a weak industry, so doubling or tripling production wouldn’t actually make that much difference in comparison with the rest of the world. This all meant China’s industry was accelerating at a fairly slow and insignificant rate. This was the main reason Mao decided to launch a new five year plan that would accelerate China’s industry and bring, or attempt to bring, China in line with industrialised nations. This plan became known as the “Great Leap Forward”.
Mao’s specific intention of the Great Leap Forwards was to industrialise China to the level of Britain within 15 years. Not only did he intend on carrying on increasing production of heavy industry, but light industry and agriculture as well. All this required money, which China simply did not have. Although China was short of money to build such industries and technologies, it was by no means short of manpower as it was the world’s most populous country. Mao believed that any task could be accomplished by harnessing the power of the Chinese people. With its staggering population, Mao believed China had limitless potential, yet in terms of industry it was still behind tiny nations like Belgium. Mao genuinely thought that in some 30 years China would be the leading economy in the world. It was even more encouraging for Mao to see Russia, China’s Communist ally, become a leading industrial nation. Mao was intent on utilising the Chinese population to boost its industry by using his Communist techniques; he started this by first grouping the population into self-sufficient communes.
The communes were villages, or groups of villages, with occupants who would give up their land, equipment and animals to common ownership by all the members of the commune. Chinese people grouped themselves into communes at incredible speeds; in 1958 around 90% of the population was a member of a commune. The aim of the communes was to solve China’s financial, environmental and industrial problems by shear manpower. It was also aimed to make production more efficient by specialism, i.e. each person specialises in a particular job therefore time is reduced doing other jobs and more work in that specific job is done. Examples of this include people working in nurseries so children’s parents won’t have to look after their children and will have more time to work on the fields or in the industries. Communes were also relatively independent as they each had their own schools, clinics, eating halls, nurseries, entertainments and even local government, but of course the Communists made sure each commune was following its decisions.
One of the decisions of the Communists was to set up industry in each commune, or “people’s backyard”. Factories making just about everything were set up in communes around the country, with special emphasis on the steel industry. In fact the Communists had placed so much effort into steel production that they had built some 600,000 blast furnaces in communes scattered around China. The aim of setting up industry in communes rather than cities was to keep industry around the majority of people (in their “backyards) rather than making them move and allowing huge migration of peasant labourers into cities, which would mean major unemployment, housing shortages and general inefficiency. Bringing industry to people, rather than people to industry, would allow many more people to work in these industries, and subsequently boost Chinese industry to a much higher level.
In terms of production, this was exactly what happened, and the setting up of the blast furnaces in communes had boosted steel production a staggering 65% in just one year. It was clear that Mao had achieved his aim of harnessing the power of the masses in making China one step closer to top industrialised nations. Indeed this was Mao’s aim – catching up with the West. Mao further accelerated the rate of production by use of propaganda and motivational enthusiasm. He did this by setting up posters and slogans around the country, as well as articles in newspapers, to persuade the Chinese people that working hard, for long hours and in horrendous weather conditions was their contribution to the country. This just shows Mao’s extreme desire for China to industrialise at an amazingly fast pace, perhaps this was because of his old age or even his great enthusiasm of the relatively new idea of Communism, but whatever the case it was clear that Mao had put a huge effort into this plan, even if it was too much of an effort.
In conclusion, Mao launched the Great Leap Forward in an attempt to boost China to the level of a top industrialised nation. He did this by creating self-sufficient communes, each producing its own products that would form the backbone of Chinese industry. In doing this Mao managed to stop the almost certain peasant migration into factories in cities, by creating industry in “people’s backyards”. Most important of all he utilised China’s massive population to empower industry and combat the financial and technological problems faced.