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China's real Great Leap Forward

Fifty years on from Mao's Great Leap Forward, BBC Newsnight's Paul Mason finds a country haunted by fears of a financial bubble, environmental disaster and struggling to come terms with the political injustices of half a century ago.

By Paul Mason
BBC Newsnight, China

It was not until I saw the black sedan tailing me that I knew, for certain, I was on the right track.

Building in Shanghai

I had come to China to film a report about the crisis in its development model: the overheating economy, the water crisis, the growing spate of environmental protests.

But, because this year is the 50th anniversary of the Great Leap Forward, I had decided to look at today's success story through the prism of the failure of 50 years ago.

The problem was, many young Chinese people I met didn't buy the analogy, or they knew less than I did about the events of 1958. Even the Wikipedia page on it is inaccessible in the People's Republic of China (PRC).

"That was a fantasy, this is reality," one Chinese journalist warned me. "I just don't agree with the parallel."

See what you think: in 1958, Chairman Mao decided that Chinese industry and agriculture should be modernised both at once. In the orthodox Marxist playbook, this is near impossible to do, and so it proved.

Mao told people to forge steel in backyard furnaces: forests were stripped, whole villages saw their tools melted down. Mao ordered the eradication of sparrows as pests: a plague of locusts followed.

Mao ordered the theories of Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko to guide Chinese agriculture: crops failed.

It was not a total disaster: steel production leapt by 45%. It was only years later that Chinese demographers noticed 30 million people missing from the population.

The great experiment had caused one of the 20th Century's most devastating famines.

State intervention

China's real leap forward is happening right now, as people's living standards rise, as the country bursts out into the global marketplace.

Wikipedia Great Leap Forward page
Wikipedia's page on the Great Leap Forward is not visible in China

But it is still a hybrid of the market and the plan: for all the rhetoric of privatisation and marketisation, these processes are themselves a form of giant state intervention.

And, as in 1958, they fit in with the accepted wisdom of economists. As in 1958, much of orthodox economics is cheering China along its chosen path.

But the cracks are beginning to show.

The economy is overheating: 8.7% annualised inflation; a 23% rise in food prices.

In a wholesale market in Shanghai, I met stallholders furious at being squeezed between rising farm prices and the low disposable incomes of their clients.

In the glitzy cocktail bars of that city, I met others able to ride the wave of the overhead.

Some 150 million people are now gambling their savings on the stock exchange. The typical investor is young, female and wears Burberry.

They are confident their government will not allow the current stock market bubble - 400% up in four years - to turn into a crash.

Bigger problem

But when you get out of the eastern seaboard and see the industrial heartland of China, it is clear the economy may not be the biggest problem.

Yangtze river dried up
In some areas, the mighty Yangtze is reduced to a trickle
There is a water crisis: major rivers like the Yangtze are being polluted beyond repair.

Meanwhile, the Chinese government is planning to divert whole river systems to feed and water Beijing during the Olympic Games.

For me, the question is this: can China's governance system cope with the increasingly complex and critical decisions that economic development is posing?

In other words, is its development model sustainable - or will too rapid and one-sided progress hit the buffers, economic, environmental and social?

When I spoke to Dr Fang Xing Hai, one of a new breed of communist leaders educated in the West, he was confident it can.

He revealed, somewhat to my surprise, that there are "factions" within the Communist Party leadership and that the key debate between them is an echo of the debate in 1958: more state intervention or more market forces?

The Chinese system, he assured me, is mature and resilient, capable of reading inputs and taking timely decisions. It could never get caught up in the hubris that propelled Mao along the path of the original Great Leap.


I met many people who had lived through the Great Leap Forward and remembered Mao with reverence. But I wanted to speak to some of the victims of that time.

Those accused of opposing the Great Leap Forward were labelled rightists and purged: half a million fell victim to the anti-rightists movement in 1958.

I realised the men inside the black sedan were filming me

Professor Wan Yao Qiu was teaching biology at Beijing University. Denounced as a rightist, mainly he says because his boss was an outspoken critic of the party, he was expelled, sacked and exiled to the countryside where he was forced to work in a factory for 21 years.

In those 21 years, he says he was treated like "an untouchable in the Indian caste system: everybody had the right to kick us, like rats crossing the street".

Released in 1979, he and his generation have not been fully cleared. I was due to meet four of them - but three were placed under house arrest for the duration of the National People's Congress.

Prof Wan told me that the real lesson of the Great Leap Forward was the need for democracy, for the people to be able to supervise the government. I had found few others prepared to speak so openly about the cracks within China's governance system.

A meat market
Shanghai market traders face rising farm prices and slowing spending

The professor wanted to show me where, in 1958 his generation had pasted posters about democracy, in the Triangle Land of Beijing University.

But as we drove there, I noticed a black sedan was following us: it followed us for half an hour.

And when I got out of the car to recce the famous Triangle - which also happens to be where students called for democracy before the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre - I realised the men inside the black sedan were filming me.

Here is the paradox: the government would repudiate everything Mao advocated in 1958.

You would imagine that Prof Wan and his colleagues would be seen as visionaries: market socialists before their time.

But no: so tight does the Communist Party guard its hold on power that to admit the anti-rightist campaign was unjust might question its legitimacy.

So the professor stayed in the car, and I never got my guided tour of this historic place in China's intellectual history.

As the puzzled Chinese equivalents of Starsky and Hutch peered out of their darkened windscreen, wondering what to do about us, I realised there is value in asking questions about the past.

Few in China will want to commemorate the events of 1958 - but to move on from the past you have to try to understand it.

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