From 1960–1962, an estimated thirty million people died of starvation in China, more than any other single famine in recorded human history. Most tragically, this disaster was largely preventable. The ironically titled Great Leap Forward was supposed to be the spectacular culmination of Mao Zedong’s program for transforming China into a Communist paradise. In 1958, Chairman Mao launched a radical campaign to outproduce Great Britain, mother of the Industrial Revolution, while simultaneously achieving Communism before the Soviet Union. But the fanatical push to meet unrealistic goals led to widespread fraud and intimidation, culminating not in record-breaking output but the starvation of approximately one in twenty Chinese.
Too few Americans are aware of this epic disaster, and even among the Chinese, it is not well-understood. In the interest of informing a general readership of both the facts and lessons of the Great Leap Forward, the following article outlines the disaster, beginning with China’s successful, centralizing reforms of the early 1950s; Mao’s subsequent devolution into a paranoid despot as he purged critics and fostered a blind, fanatical devotion to his own naïve policies; and how this spiral ultimately ravaged the Chinese population. We conclude with a comparison of this famine to others and, finally, the lesson that this harrowing experience offers in the dangers of suppressing critical, independent thought.