The Chinese Communist Party conquers the mainland and establishes the People’s Republic of China on 1 October. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the defeated Guomindang, takes refuge on the island of Taiwan. In December Mao leaves for Moscow to pursue a strategic alliance with the Soviet Union and seek help from Stalin.
China enters the Korean War.
Autumn 1955–spring 1956:
Mao, displeased with the slow pace of economic development, pushes for the accelerated collectivisation of the countryside and for huge increases in the production of grain, cotton, coal and steel. His ‘Socialist High Tide’, also referred to by some historians as the ‘Little Leap Forward’, produces industrial shortages and famine in parts of the countryside. Zhou Enlai and other economic planners urge a slower pace of collectivisation in the spring of 1956.
Khrushchev denounces Stalin and the cult of personality in a secret speech in Moscow. Criticism of Stalin’s disastrous campaign of collectivisation strengthens the position of those opposed to the Socialist High Tide in China. Mao perceives deStalinisation as a challenge to his own authority.
A reference to ‘Mao Zedong Thought’ is removed from the party constitution, the principle of collective leadership is lauded and the cult of personality is decried. The Socialist High Tide is halted.
Encouraged by deStalinisation, people in Hungary revolt against their own government, forcing Soviet forces to invade the country, crush all opposition and install a new regime with Moscow’s backing.
Winter 1956–spring 1957:
Mao, against the wishes of most of his colleagues, encourages a more open political climate with the ‘Hundred Flowers’ campaign to secure the support of scientists and intellectuals in developing the economy and avoid the social unrest that led to the Soviet invasion of Hungary.
The campaign backfires as a mounting barrage of criticism questions the very right of the party to rule. Mao turns around and accuses these critical voices of being ‘bad elements’ bent on destroying the party. He puts Deng Xiaoping in charge of an anti-rightist campaign, which persecutes half a million people – many of them students and intellectuals deported to remote areas to do hard labour. The party finds unity behind its Chairman.
Mao visits Moscow. Impressed by the Soviet sputnik, the first satellite launched into orbit, he declares that the ‘East wind prevails over the west wind.’ In response to Khrushchev’s announcement that the Soviet Union will outstrip the United States in economic production in fifteen years, he declares that China will overtake Britain in the same period.
Winter 1957–spring 1958:
In a series of party conferences Mao attacks Zhou Enlai and other senior leaders who opposed his economic policy. He promotes his own vision of mass mobilisation and accelerated collectivisation of the countryside, demanding increased agricultural and industrial targets. The slogan ‘going all out, aiming high, and achieving more, faster and more economical results’ becomes the party line.
Winter 1957–summer 1958:
A campaign of repression targets hundreds of thousands of party members critical of economic policy. Several provincial party leaders are purged and replaced by close followers of Mao. Opposition from within the party is silenced.
Winter 1957–spring 1958:
A massive water-conservancy campaign is launched, marking the start of the ‘Great Leap Forward’ for hundreds of millions of ordinary villagers compelled to work for weeks on end on remote projects, often without sufficient rest and food.
Khrushchev visits Beijing, but tensions appear as Mao decides to shell several islands in the Taiwan Strait without first consulting his Soviet ally, triggering an international crisis with the United States. Moscow is forced to take sides by throwing its weight behind Beijing, proclaiming that an attack on the People’s Republic of China would be considered an attack on the Soviet Union.
The mass mobilisation of villagers around huge water projects requires much larger administrative units in the countryside, leading to the amalgamation of farm collectives into gigantic people’s communes of up to 20,000 households. Everyday life in the communes is run along military lines. Almost everything, including land and labour, is collectivised. Communal dining replaces private kitchens, while children are left in the care of boarding kindergartens. A work-point system is used to calculate rewards, while even money is abolished in some communes. Backyard furnaces are used to melt all sorts of metal objects in order to contribute to the party’s escalating steel target. Famine conditions appear in many parts of the country.
November 1958–February 1959:
Mao turns against local cadres who produce inflated targets and promise an imminent transition to communism. He tries to rein in some of the worst abuses of the Great Leap Forward, but continues to push forward with collectivisation. He announces that mistakes made by the party are only ‘one finger out of ten’. In order to meet foreign obligations and feed the cities, food procurements in the countryside increase sharply. The famine spreads.
At a Shanghai conference Mao launches a withering attack on senior party members and presses for even higher procurement targets in the countryside, up to a third of all grain, despite widespread famine.
At the Lushan conference Mao denounces Peng Dehuai and other leaders as an ‘anti-party clique’ for criticising the Great Leap Forward.
Summer 1959–summer 1960:
A campaign of repression is launched against party members who expressed critical views similar to Peng Dehuai and his allies. Tens of millions of villagers die of starvation, disease or torture.
Soviet advisers are withdrawn from China by Khrushchev. Zhou Enlai and Li Fuchun move the trade structure away from the Soviet Union towards the West.
A report on mass starvation in Xinyang, Henan, is handed over to Mao by Li Fuchun.
An emergency directive is issued allowing villagers to keep private plots, engage in sideline occupations, rest for eight hours a day and restore local markets, among other measures designed to weaken the power of the communes over villagers.
Investigation teams spread over the countryside, bringing to light the full dimensions of the catastrophe. Large quantities of food are imported from the West.
Inspection tours by leading party members result in a further retreat from the Great Leap Forward. Liu Shaoqi places the blame for the famine on the shoulders of the party but absolves Mao of all responsibility.
The consequences of the Great Leap Forward are discussed at a series of party meetings.
At an enlarged party gathering of thousands of cadres in Beijing, Liu Shaoqi describes the famine as a man-made disaster. Support for Mao wanes. The famine abates, but continues to claim lives in parts of the countryside until the end of 1962.
Mao launches the Cultural Revolution.