The China Quarterly


Mao Zedong and the Famine of 1959–1960: A Study in Wilfulness 1

Thomas P. Bernstein 

Article author query
bernstein tp   [Google Scholar] 


In late autumn 1958, Mao Zedong strongly condemned widespread practices of the Great Leap Forward (GLF) such as subjecting peasants to exhausting labour without adequate food and rest, which had resulted in epidemics, starvation and deaths. At that time Mao explicitly recognized that anti-rightist pressures on officialdom were a major cause of “production at the expense of livelihood.” While he was not willing to acknowledge that only abandonment of the GLF could solve these problems, he did strongly demand that they be addressed. After the July 1959 clash at Lushan with Peng Dehuai, Mao revived the GLF in the context of a new, extremely harsh anti-rightist campaign, which he relentlessly promoted into the spring of 1960 together with the radical policies that he previously condemned. Not until spring 1960 did Mao again express concern about abnormal deaths and other abuses, but he failed to apply the pressure needed to stop them. Given what he had already learned about the costs to the peasants of GLF extremism, the Chairman should have known that the revival of GLF radicalism would exact a similar or even bigger price. Instead, he wilfully ignored the lessons of the first radical phase for the sake of achieving extreme ideological and developmental goals.

(Published Online July 5 2006)


1 I would like to thank Steven M. Goldstein, Roderick MacFarquhar, Frederick C. Teiwes and Dorothy J. Solinger for helpful comments, and Nancy Hearst of the Fairbank Center Library for materials. This article draws on but does not duplicate the author's article, “Stalinism, famine, and Chinese peasants: grain procurements during the Great Leap Forward,” Theory and Society, Vol. 13, No. 3 (1984), pp. 339–377.