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How to Leap Forward

Here are some lessons from Mao Zedong for future Great Leaders.

At some point in 1958, Mao Zedong, Chairman of the Communist Party of China, conceived an intense dislike for sparrows, and decreed that henceforth a bounty would be paid for dead specimens. Sparrows, supposedly, ate too much grain from the fields, causing famine.

The Chinese people attacked sparrows with a vengeance. One would think that sparrows had been stealing grain from their children’s mouths! Of course, this was hardly the last of Mao’s brilliant schemes.

He further decreed that China would become an industrial giant. His strategy to achieve this was that all Chinese, whether they knew anything about smelting or not, would set up furnaces in their homes and workplaces, hunt for scrap iron, and smelt steel.

And who would feed the population while they were busy doing this? Mao wasn’t concerned with little details like that. Peasants could eat whatever they produced in their local canteens; the government would somehow feed the urban populace. His interest lay in the fact that the Chinese, united as one nation under his leadership, would throw off the humiliations of the last two centuries and assume their rightful place as the superiors of Western imperialists and capitalists. He was not concerned with implementation or costs. More importantly, he was not concerned with the fact that Communist China, under the administration of his subordinates Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, was actually doing quite well for itself. (Perhaps his envy of them and a desire for absolute control was an underlying factor.)

Things went swimmingly at first. Peasants had no incentive to produce a surplus, since they were fed by local collective canteens. It’s not like they had time anyway, what with perpetrating a sparrow genocide and hunting for bits and pieces of scrap iron to smelt. Rumblings of caution were dealt with summarily, with extreme violence. Mao’s entire inner circle was purged so that only those who were unquestionably loyal remained. Marshal Peng, one of the great figures of the Chinese Civil War, was disgraced for daring to question Mao.

After that, everyone outdid themselves by claiming fantastic crop figures, with a certain village claiming to have grown a gourd the size of a truck. To do otherwise was tantamount to questioning Mao. And to question Mao was to invite a thrashing, if not torture and death. Exhortations of national pride were trumpeted; Mao and his inner circle purged the government and the military of anyone who openly questioned the policy; the entire exercise seemed to do nothing else but boost one man’s ego.

Millions died; peasants first. The lack of sparrows allowed great plagues of locusts to devour crops. The fields, barely worked because farmers had been hunting for sparrows and scrap iron, were neglected. And what little food was left was confiscated for cities. The government was clearly nowhere near ready for the consequences, and had no idea how to deal with the situation that it had created for itself.

Mao never admitted that he had made a mistake. In fact, most Chinese didn’t even consider that the famine was man-made – information during and after the Leap was so strictly controlled that many believed the famine that they were seeing was local only. (Recall that it was very difficult to travel elsewhere unless one was a government official.) Official sources repeated the official party line – usually some variant of “everything is peachy, China is #1”. The cult of Mao and the opacity of the Communist leadership made it even more difficult to assign blame. The corpses of millions of innocent Chinese were whisked into obscurity so as not to taint the egomaniac who sat on his throne in Beijing.

Ultimately, Mao lost enough face among the elite that he was sidelined by more intelligent administrators – leading him, in a few years, to call for a Cultural Revolution. But that’s a story for another time.

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THE GREAT LEAP FORWARD, in the decades that followed, was rarely ever mentioned by the Chinese government. Perhaps the legacy of Mao was considered to be too important to the national consciousness for an open admission of his failure. In any case, one aspect of his legacy is a set of rules to cover up the failure of a grand scheme that seem to be repeated again and again through history.

1. Never admit that the whole scheme was your idea.

(And as a corollary, Keep things foggy enough that you can take 100% of the credit and 0% of the blame.) Mao, as a sort of ‘Great Helmsman’, was formally the Chairman of the Communist Party – separate, on paper, from the government. As a result, he could make vague pronouncements and not actually come out with concrete policies. If something went wrong, it would be an ‘implementation failure’, not an ‘ideation failure.’ And, as the Great Helmsman, he had to be given credit for everything for fear of reprisals.

2. Don’t say anything about the actual goals of the Brilliant Scheme.

The Great Leap Forward was meant, formally, to catapult China into the orbit of Great Powers, barely any of which had recognized the Communist government as legitimate. Mao was no administrator, but he was a master of palace intrigue. The actual objectives of the scheme were more likely to have been a way for him to consolidate his grip on power. People who spoke out, like Marshal Peng, were ruthlessly dealt with – a technique that Mao called “luring out the snake to cut off its head.”

3. Harp endlessly on national pride. Invoke some sort of war or struggle.

For the last hundred years before the Great Leap, China had been humiliated by everyone from Western Powers to Japan. Communist China took a great deal of pride in the fact that it had restored stability and sovereignty, claiming that it had restored the dignity of the Chinese people, and that they now felt that they could achieve anything. The Great Leap was portrayed as a worthy struggle to establish China as a great power.

4. Have a bunch of fanatical followers who don’t mind getting their hands dirty.

Mao’s personality cult was already quite far advanced and he’d been given the credit for winning the Chinese Civil War and restoring order (at the cost of side-lining all other Communist Party Leaders). So not only was criticising him forbidden, attacking his enemies was encouraged. To be anti-Mao, to question his wisdom, was constructed as being nothing short of sedition. Such a crime could and would be met by his partisans with denunciations, thrashings, disgrace – with the benign connivance of the state.

5. Never release any data about the actual effects of the Brilliant Scheme.

To reveal data is to reveal that the Brilliant Scheme was ultimately pointless and an abject failure according to its stated goals (even if it helps you achieve the actual goals). Information/propaganda is power. The full effects of the Leap couldn’t be widely known because the Communist Party had a stranglehold on the distribution of information. The only ones who knew the terrible consequences of the measure couldn’t speak out for fear of Mao’s backlash. Silence and fear mixed with awe of the Great Leader – the deaths of his subjects were not as important as the maintenance of his divinity. When, at last, even Mao realised that China needed some semblance of an economy and faded (temporarily) into the background, his lieutenants very carefully focussed on fixing the issues instead of dwelling on the disaster that he had just wrought. His role in it was never mentioned. Mao’s apotheosis continued.

Perhaps a present or future Great Leader has taken or will take heed of the example set by modern China’s founding divinity?

The views expressed in this article are personal.

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About the author

Anirudh Kanisetti

Anirudh Kanisetti is a Research Associate at the Takshashila Institution. A graduate of BITS Pilani Goa, his research interests range from systems modelling to geostrategy, economics, history and culture.