[Click here for an introduction on how cultural and revolutionary the Cultural Revolution was]
How would you compare the effects of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in hindering China’s modernisation?
While both hindered China’s modernisation, it was paradoxically the Great Leap Forward that did the greater damage, though it occurred before the Cultural Revolution. The Great Leap Forward did more damage to China’s modernisation since two very damaging factors – zeal for Maoism and the belief in mass movements – remained intact, while this was no longer the case after the Cultural Revolution.
Comparing the impacts of the two events, both the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution saw two common effects: the ruin of China’s economy, and the loss of life on a staggering scale. The Great Leap Forward, thanks to the heavy focus on industry, the mistaken belief by the government that agricultural impact was soaring (thanks to ‘satellite fields’ and false reports), and the disastrous backyard furnace campaign, saw the complete ruination of China’s agricultural base, that is, one of her key economic pillars. Not only did China’s output plummet, this also caused starvation of millions of people, the death of perhaps more than 20 million people. This was not only a human catastrophe, but seriously damaging to China’s modernisation, since it represented a disastrous loss in manpower.
The Cultural Revolution saw similar economic ruin. Agriculture was again neglected, thanks to millions of peasants abandoning their work to hunt down bourgeoisie and seditionist elements (as well as general upheaval in the countryside and cities), and to engage in struggle sessions. The Chinese economy once again imploded – though not the spectacular scale as during the Great Leap Forward (there was little indication this time of widespread famine). This too was hugely damaging to China’s economy, a hindrance to modernisation.
In contrast, however, the long term effects of the Great Leap Forward were arguably more disastrous: while both events saw some political and economic soul-searching afterward, lessons were only truly learned, it seems, after the Cultural Revolution.
After the Great Leap Forward, Mao was removed from power (temporarily), followed by a period of limited economic reform under Liu Shaoqi. In contrast, Mao was removed from power (and existence) very permanently even before the Cultural Revolution ended, and this was followed by a period of economic reform under Deng Xiaoping
The difference, cynically, lay in Mao’s power. Mao’s death removed both his ability to steer conflict, but also, in many ways, his grip on the Chinese psyche. While some leaders (eg. Hua Guofeng) still held on to Maoism, it seems most of the country became disillusioned with the cult of Mao after the Cultural Revolution. The idea of dogmatic Maoism, the destructive use of mass movements, these were discredited after the Cultural Revolution; this soul-searching opened the doors to Deng’s Reform and Opening-up policy, which while problematic has proven to be a step forward in Chinese modernisation.
In contrast, Maoism (and Mao himself) was very much intact even after the disastrous Great Leap Forward. The belief in the effectiveness of mass movements (despite their disastrous effect on the economy during the Great Leap Forward), as well as the belief in Mao’s vision for socialist modernisation, with its unrealistic economic priorities and the prioritisation of political zeal over technical substance, was intact. The strength of these beliefs was proven when Liu’s reforms (and Liu himself) were overturned, and China once again plunged into chaos. And the Cultural Revolution even resulted in new ways to hinder Chinese modernisation: the destruction of much traditional culture and wisdom, and the creation of a lost generation of ex-Red Guards and zealous youths. This destruction of heritage had perhaps less tangible effects on modernisation, but shook China’s belief in herself to the very core. And the creation of a lost generation was not only a human tragedy, but represented a massive loss in human resources for Chinese modernisation.
In conclusion, while both the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward hindered Chinese modernisation, it was the Great Leap Forward which arguably did this to a greater extent, simply because it laid the foundations for the disastrous Cultural Revolution. The latter, though it created novel ways to hinder China’s modernisation, at least saw the discrediting of Maoist socialist modernisation, and laid the foundation for a more lasting (and effective) economic reform.