Mao was determined to push the Soviets off their perch as leader of the world communist movement. Khrushchev boasted in May 1957 that the Russians would become the world's leading industrial and agricultural power within ten years. Mao sought a similar goal for China, over a much shorter period. Instead, his 'Great Leap Forward' generated the worst famine in history. An estimated 36 million Chinese starved to death during the late 1950s and early 1960s. The number killed exceed those killed by the hated Japanese during the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45 and even approached the overall mortality resulting from WWII.
Author Yang Jisheng's credibility on the topic is excellent - he experienced the death of his father from starvation during this period (but didn't link the event to government failure until three decades later), and spent twenty years interviewing numerous survivors and studying local records while creating over 3,600 folders of information. He is also a Communist Party member, with inside knowledge of the system. The detailed level of his reporting creates unquestionable authority, but becomes hard to digest.
Unfortunately, Yang doesn't speculate on how Mao's massive failures probably have led to China's government today being much more by consensus to avoid repeating these two disasters. The likely rationale for his avoiding this - elsewhere he states that staying away from commenting on current government leaders is essential to avoiding government reaction.
The CCP had issued a March, 1953 resolution promoting the pooling of land for agricultural purposes. By the end of 1954, over 400,000 agricultural cooperatives had been established - often over the resistance of the peasants. About 40% of housing was destroyed - providing wood and straw for backyard furnaces. (Violence against the government was common throughout the Great Leap Forward.) During 1957-58, more than 600,000 intellectuals were persecuted, effectively eliminating dissenting views. A labor force consisting of tens of millions was deployed to irrigation projects. Communal kitchens were encouraged, and eventually 99.1% of rural households participated in the cooperatives as even their previously permitted small private plots were appropriated.
Farm work was inhibited by the large numbers of peasants diverted into irrigation projects and backyard steel production, many agricultural tools were melted into 'steel' (mostly useless quality) in those backyard furnaces, and techniques imported from a Russian 'seer' ('close cropping' - supposedly would increase yields, actually decreased them; deep plowing - extra labor that buried the topsoil, allowing second-rate land to lie fallow because the new techniques supposedly would be so productive, killing off grain-eating sparrows - this then allowed insects to multiply).
Exaggerated reports of production and harvests dogged the Great Leap Forward from the beginning. However, credible early reports accurately told of the devastation were brought to Mao's attention - even by his respected Defense Minister - Marshal Peng Duhai. However, the then strength of the cult of Maoism at the time allowed Mao to shunt aside those complaining by labeling them as obstructionists. Yang depicts China's hierarchical system of concentrated power as one in which every official is a slave facing upward and a dictator facing downward. At the bottom were the petty bureaucrats, harshest of all. An incalculable number of Chinese chose to kill other Chinese. Survival choices included keeping one child alive by starving the others, digging up and eating freshly buried relatives, protecting oneself by informing on neighbors, eating bark and grass, etc. Mass graves were filled with the dead, and then stomped flat and crops planted on top - covering up the evidence.
Grain exports in 1959 reached an all-time high - five million tons, used to finance acquisition of machinery etc. from outside. Peasants were forced to live on what was left after government procurement for urban workers, the armed forces, and exports. Military officers were frequently rotated to prevent building bonds with the locals; they were also separated from program administration.
Peasants were forbidden from moving to other areas, their information sources heavily censored and restricted, and even letters from one area to another were simply held without forwarding. Nonetheless, hundreds of thousands fled to Russia and Hong Kong, though many were repatriated.
The Chinese people were even deprived of the right to silence and repeatedly forced to expose their thoughts publicly, as well as flatter Party thinking and leaders.
The Great Leap Forward ended after a 1962 nationwide conference at which President Liu Shaoqi, along with the chairman of the State Planning Commission Li Fuchu presented their findings of what was occurring to the top 7,118 leaders. They were told that farmers believed their problems were 30% due to natural causes and 70% man-made. It was initially resisted, but slowly led to ending the program. Mao never forgave Liu Shaoqi, and like former Defense Minister Peng, he was ultimately purged and subjected to considerable physical abuse.
Since then Communist officials prohibit mention of this tragedy and no memorials to its victims exist. Any mention of the starvation's is dismissed as being caused by drought and floods. The original book consisted of two-volumes and 1,208 pages, with detailed citations to prevent the Chinese government from simply dismissing it. The book was intended as a tombstone for his father and all the other victims. It is banned in mainland China.