How far were Maos agricultural policies responsible for the scale of the Great Famine in China, 1958-1962?
How far were Mao’s agricultural policies responsible for the scale of the Great Famine in China, 1958-1962?
Mao’s agricultural policies were extreme, unpopular and carelessly thought through which made them largely responsible for the scale of the Great Famine. These policies included bad agronomical theories of Lysenkoism and ‘Sparrowcide’, as well as Collectivisation and the agricultural policies from the Great Leap Forward. Chinese researchers were told that the Soviets ‘had discovered and invented everything,’ which meant that they looked up to the USSR believing that their actions and ideas i.e. Lysenkoism, a Soviet theory, would also benefit China. There were also other contributions which can be argued to have caused the huge scale of the famine such as the effects of the Anti-rightist campaigns in 1957, Party corruption, USSR grain repayments along with terrible weather conditions and the situation in Tibet.
Collectivisation from 1953-57, was the first agricultural policy taken on by Mao which was unsupported by the peasants in the countryside who were the majority of the population. The whole aim for Collectivisation was to massively increase grain production at a relatively quick pace, but the difficulties of implementation only led to a 3.8% increase overall of crop production, and only a tiny 1% in the last year in 1957. These disappointing figures represent how Mao failed to understand the peasants which were a vital factor towards why millions were unwilling to cultivate land. This is because peasants were no longer allowed to farm for themselves as the grain produced went to the State instead, to feed the cities, leaving many to starve. This caused an increased atmosphere of discontent among the peasants and this is unsurprising when historians such as Jon Halliday suggest that the living standards of the peasants did not improve, but instead caused severe hardship for them. Due to the failure of the policy, more radical changes needed to take place which occurred in Mao’s more ambitious plan of the Great Leap Forward.
The Great Leap Forward, introduced in May 1958, caused a significant decrease in grain production overall which had detrimental effects on society and welfare. Mao believed that the people of China were willing to work on an ideological basis, meaning that they were self-motivated without the need for incentives to work. He thought that propaganda was sufficient enough to encourage the peasants to work long hours and to ‘maintain their enthusiasm’ but his overestimation led to a decrease in production instead. For example, 200 millions of tonnes of grain were produced in 1958 but by the end of the plans in 1962 only 160 millions of tonnes were produced. Millions of peasants in the countryside were starving as the grain they cultivated was being taken away, leaving them with very little or no grain to feed from. Peasant life in the countryside was further worsened when families were broken up under the policy, which was Mao’s intention. Tools including those for farming, were also being melted in ‘Backyard Furnaces’ an industrial policy simultaneously occurring with agricultural production under Mao’s slogan of “Walking on two legs.” However, this dual focus meant harvests were not being tended, leaving crops to rot in the fields as workers felt the need to produce steel at the same time. The high targets and long hours of work only produced poor quality production, which left a strong sense of a lack of motivation among the peasants, especially when there was so little food to eat. Furthermore, the Great Leap Forward’s aim of creating a self-sufficient China could not have been done at a worse time when the scale of the Great Famine had become to hit, meaning that self-sufficiency was no longer a realistic target to aim for, especially when Mao was importing food from abroad. The bad outlook of the Great Leap Forward was emphasised under bad agronomical theories which resulted in major crop failure.
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Since 1949, USSR influence was great in China which led Mao to the bad decision of adopting the fraudulent theory of Lysenkoism in 1958, hoping that it would massively increase China’s crop production on a revolutionary scale. When it was applied however, the consequences were very grave because the crops did not successfully grow, meaning the theory failed to live up to its extraordinary claims, even in the best weather conditions. To highlight the extent of the matter, the policy was implemented everywhere, which underlines the devastating effects this had on the peasants and workers. It also demonstrates Mao’s ignorance on the careful application of his agricultural policies. ‘Sparrowcide’ was another example which aimed to ensure that there was maximum crop yield by preventing sparrows who fed on the seeds and grain from landing on the farms, but the disruption of the food chain led to the multiplication of vermin which destroyed the stocks of grain. Great numbers of peasants became so hungry that they tried to ignore the new regulations of farming, but this only caused the consequence of them ending up in forced labour camps where millions starved to death as they were seen as ‘rightists,’ a class enemy. This shows how the policies were held largely responsible for the Great Famine, due to the enormous scale of whom it affected.
However, it is important to consider other factors, such as the effects of the Anti-rightist campaign of 1957 which caused a fixed climate of fear within China that allowed the detrimental effects of the failing agricultural policies to happen. In 1957, Mao decided to attack all intellectuals which included teachers, writers and scientists. Between 300,000 and 500,000 intellectuals had been attacked and all suffered greatly as they were sent to labour camps, jail or to the countryside where life was hard. The process had caused widespread fear which forced the rest of the people to keep silent so as to avoid being purged under Mao’s regime. Their silence meant that peasants felt compelled to lie about their production achievements by exaggerating on their numbers. This caused major inefficiencies of the agricultural policies as the peasants clearly had not produced what they claimed to have produced, which led to all the grain being taken away from them. All their hard work was at a disadvantageous state because they worked for nothing, but starvation and death. However, in some cases, the grain taken away ended up in the hands of Party officials who selfishly took a more than proportionate share for themselves.
The scale of the Great Famine left China in such a desperate state that evidence for corruption became increasingly evident, even amongst the higher ranking people, in particular Party Officials. The hoarding of grain by callous Party officials to feed selfishly for themselves was at the expense of many workers in the industrial cities. Although this did not happen all the time, it was not uncommon as officials and the impact of hoarding the grain had big impacts on society. This is because China’s agricultural sector was in such a terrible and awful state, that even the tiniest amounts of food were significant for the ordinary Chinese citizen, whether it was somebody in the countryside or in the city.
Some responsibilities for the scale of the Great Famine were out of Mao’s control such as the split with the USSR. The relationship between China and the USSR had gradually been deteriorating ever since Mao came into power, but this clearly did not help the situation in China in the 1960s, because the USSR wanted the loans they lent out to China to be repaid back, but in the unfortunate conditions of the commodity which China needed most, which was grain. To see that it wasn’t just party officials which the grain was unnecessarily going to, but that it was also going to the Soviet people, deepens the suffering of the Chinese peasants and workers, illustrating how so little of the grain available was going towards them. This shows that Mao’s hope for independence and self-sufficiency of China was not working because they were losing grain instead of gaining it. However, he mainly blamed the cause of the great famine on the most typical reason of natural disasters.
The failure of crops was easily destroyed by the bad weather conditions which happened over 3 years and had made growing crops especially difficult for the farmers. There was flooding in the North and drought in the South, and in 1960 an estimated 60% of agricultural land received no rain at all. The effects caused a few million to die of starvation or drowning where areas were severely flooded. The Chinese government named the period “The Three Bitter Years” and claimed that this was the primary reason for the failure of harvests. This shift of the blame was partially to cover up the artificially produced famine in Tibet which they were hiding, therefore worsening the situation of the scale of the Great Famine.
Mao wanted to eradicate the Tibetan culture, society and its identity by destroying and preventing agricultural production. Mao seemed to have a personal grudge against Tibet which caused harsh and ruthless treatment upon its people from 1959. In this year there was a Tibetan Uprising, which was quickly repressed by the Chinese forces who then deliberately made life extremely hard for them, by making lethal changes to Tibetan farming. This meant that the farmers were unable to adapt to the new styles of farming as their traditional methods were banned. The Tibetan crops were replaced by barley which was tampered and most unsuitable for growing in the Tibetan climate. When it was cultivated, the crop was indigestible. This resulted in hundreds of thousands of Tibetan people to die from starvation and dehydration. This shows how Mao had managed to worsen and increase the potential of the scale of the Great Famine by constructing one himself.
In conclusion, it is evident that Mao’s agricultural policies had ultimate responsibility for the scale of the Great Famine. All of them failed to increase grain production when the whole aim was to increase it significantly. The impacts were especially made by Mao’s main policy of the Great Leap Forward where grain production actually decreased, because Mao largely believed that the farmers did not need any incentive to cultivate and he ignored many flaws of the plan. Most crops could not be cultivated anyway as the Soviet theories of Lysenkoism and Sparrowcide were false and impractical, therefore causing millions to die of starvation. In general terms, it was Mao’s attitude and mismanagement of China which caused the Great Famine, meaning that had it not also been for the many other factors suggested, the famine may not have reached the scale that it came to be.
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