I've been reading about Mao Zedong and I heard about his Great Leap Forward. I read that it ended up splitting families apart and causing a massive economic crash. Why didn't Mao Zedong see this would happen.

  • If all the programs did work that politicians though will.. Incompetence?
    – Greg
    Dec 23, 2016 at 6:16
  • 5
    Why do you assume that he cared?
    – jamesqf
    Dec 23, 2016 at 7:01
  • @jamesqf I didn't, I just think that he would have noticed that there wasn't any growth out of it so he would've stopped it Jan 4, 2017 at 13:13
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    @The Gamer King: But then you run into the Emperor's New Clothes" problem. Who's going to tell the Supreme Leader that his great idea doesn't work?
    – jamesqf
    Jan 5, 2017 at 18:54

3 Answers 3


Knowing why a dead person believes something or not is hard; but what we can tell is that Mao believed that the Great Leap Forward would work, either out of incompetence or arrogance, and he had managed to silence his critics and those that would have forseen the disaster.

In this sense he is far from alone in history; a most similar example would be Stalin and Lysenkoism. In both cases a nation blinded by revolutionary zeal chose to place their faith in ideology and pseudoscience, causing a massive famine.

The myriad reasons for the failure of the Great Leap Forward can fill books. Mao was economically incompetent but a master politician; he trusted pseudoscience and political will over his intellectual critics, whom he purged ruthlessly. The only voices he heard were those similarly blinded by revolutionary zeal; his critics were too fearful and powerless to question the decisions until the disaster could not be ignored. Decisions on production quotas were made from the top down, they were highly unrealistic, and criticising or failing to meet those quotas only resulted in retribution. This created a toxic echo chamber where peasants were worked to exhaustion and records were falsified to create the impression that the whole plan worked.

A good example of this happening: Mao believed that a key indicator of economic performance was the production of steel, and so he encouraged everyone to smelt steel literally from their backyards. Peasants tried to smelt everything they can find, like pots and pans, stripped forests and even burned furniture for fuel. The result was mostly economically marginal pig iron, at the cost of large-scale capital destruction (pots and furniture are useful, you see).

  • Also Mao didn't know until it was already late about the awful effect that the reforms caused. Bureocrats and local authorities didn't inform on time about the disaster. And finally the weather was an important factor as well.
    – Santiago
    Dec 14, 2016 at 21:01
  • The question asks why Mao didn't foresee disaster so after-the-fact factors like weather aren't really relevant. Dec 16, 2016 at 4:06
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    @Santiago if you execute all your critics, it is hardly an excuse that no one told you about the problems.
    – Greg
    Dec 23, 2016 at 6:18
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    This is a good answer, and I've upvoted it, but it's also important to remember that dictators, especially revolutionary ones, need to be ruthless to survive. From what I've read, Mao saw great value to himself in keeping everyone else off balance so that his own position was more secure. (You could as well ask why Stalin executed much of the critical leadership of the USSR and its army: He preferred to risk the country more than to risk himself.)
    – Mark Olson
    May 1, 2020 at 18:42

This falls under the heading of "Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics."

The first issue was "statistics." In 1957, there was a genuine but short-lived uptick in the amount of grain produced in China, 193 million tons. (Source: Time Magazine, Country volumes, China.) This was due to unusually good weather, but it led Mao to believe that he could "spare" some farm workers for industrial pursuits.

In the following years, the annual grain production fell to 168, 162, and 167 million tons. But optimistic reports from the communes convinced Mao that the figures were higher, meaning that he "taxed" the communes to a greater degree than they could afford.

The second issue was the one of "industrial pursuits" such as steel making. Normally, steel is produced in large, centralized blast furnaces at over 1000 degrees F. But "steel" could be produced in small "backyard" furnaces at temperatures of a few hundred degrees. So Mao deployed formerly agricultural workers to such furnaces. They produced large quantities of steel--of a very inferior quality that was brittle because it had not been cast at high enough temperatures.

Mao's plan looked "brilliant," on paper. But "the devil is in the details."


I think there were more direct political intention behind all those movements that Mao led than what people think what the benefit should be from them. I think it all served really well in that regard, at least at the start.

Similar things in real live, when one looks for funding, or support to run a project, the attention or interest of the audience is always primarily considered, the value or consequences is secondary, at least for those who want to be in charge.

  • 2
    In the case of the Great Leap Forward, it was a disaster for Mao himself, as he became politically sidelined. He stepped down as State Chairman and his political rivals Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping gained in power. Dec 22, 2016 at 23:44
  • All political campaign of this sort usually end up as disasters, even including culture revolution. But it did start successfully and well in motivating the populations, even heading into an abyss.
    – xappppp
    Dec 23, 2016 at 0:10
  • Lemmings are a clear success then?
    – Greg
    Dec 23, 2016 at 6:20

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