Was Mao’s modernisation of the People’s Republic of China in the Great Leap Forward (1958-62) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) a success of failure? (Minor Essay)
Chairman Mao made two major attempts to modernise the People’s Republic of China with the Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1962 and the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976. Stuart Schram presents the view that these modernisation attempts were poorly planned and led to disastrous outcomes. Other historians such as Roger Howard suggest that Mao had a strong political consciousness and understanding of the needs of his people. This essay will explore the two major modernisation attempts, making reference to the thoughts of Chairman Mao as a server of the people and why his modernisation attempts may have been more detrimental rather than beneficial to his nation.
The Great Leap Forward was an attempt to modernise China’s economic structure from an agricultural system into an industrial one. Mao intended to create a non-Soviet model for economic expansion using the rural peasant class rather than the urban peasant class that Soviet Russia had used yet China lacked.
The Great Leap Forward gave working class people their first major experience of socialist construction. A backyard furnace industry, smelting iron and steel was encouraged. There was a minor success to this as ordinary people were familiarised with the industrial process. It also helped garner support for Mao from the rural peasant class as they were entrusted with helping build up the industry of the People’s Republic of China.
However, this process wasn’t a great leap forward. It was more of a mediocre hop of little progress. By 1959 these furnaces were only producing a quarter of the projected output of twenty million tons of metal. The metal that was created from this was also not steel, but pig iron. It could not be used as a building material as it would crumble and crack too easily. The backyard furnaces plan may have introduced ordinary people to the industrial system but they lacked the skills to create even average quality metals. This was one of the failures of Mao’s attempt to modernise. He entrusted the rural peasant class to build up his industry without understanding that they lacked the skills to do so. Many tons of metal were wasted on a fruitless endeavour. However, it wasn’t a complete failure as it did bring the population together. Tens of millions of ordinary Chinese people participated.
 Schram, Simon, The Thought of Mao Tse-Tung (Cambridge University Press, 1989), p.195
 Howard, Roger, Mao Tse-Tung and the Chinese People (Monthly Preview Press, 1977), p. 197-198
 Ibid., p.280
 Ibid., p. 308
 Macfarquhar, Roderick, Origins, Vol.2, 114, 116, cited in: Lüthi, Lorenz M., The Sino-Soviet Split: Cold War in the Communist World (Princeton University Press, 2008), p.106