Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles During the Great Leap Forward, Mao killed 45 million people. But the Chinese Communist Party Still calls it a natural disaster. Welcome to China Uncensored, I'm Chris Chappell. This week, the Chinese Communist Party celebrates its 100-year anniversary. And the Party is giving itself the best birthday present of all: the gift of changing its own past. Like any 100-year old, the Chinese Communist Party wants to look good on its big day. So Party officials don't like it when people bring up all the mistakes they made before. In Party-speak, they call this “historical nihilism.” Historical nihilism is anything that questions the Party's official rainbows-and-sunshine version of its past. Because questioning the Party's past also “means denying the 'inevitability' of China's march towards socialism.” Chinese leader Xi Jinping blames historical nihilism for the collapse of the Soviet Union. And he's determined that's not going to happen to the Chinese Communist Party. Which is why earlier this year, the Party launched a hotline for people to report any cases of historical nihilism they see. “The tip line allows people to report fellow netizens who 'distort' the Party's history, attack its leadership and policies, defame national heroes and 'deny the excellence of advanced socialist culture' online.” Reporting people for wrongthink: a proud communist tradition. As a result of that campaign, Chinese authorities deleted 2 million online posts for historical nihilism. But we're not in China. So let's commit some historical nihilism. It's time to once again go down the memory hole, with our new segment on the Chinese Communist Party's 100-year anniversary. We call it 100 Years of Things That Never Happened. Today we're talking about the Chinese Communist Party's most spectacular failure: The Great Leap Forward. You've got to hand it to Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong . He really knew how to name things. “Land Reform” sounds way better than “Killing Land Owners and Taking Their Stuff.” The “Hundred Flowers Campaign” sounds way better than “Torturing Intellectuals for Criticizing Me.” And the Great Leap Forward sounds way better than “Ruining the Economy While Killing 45 Million People.” The Great Leap Forward was Mao's plan to supercharge China's transformation into a communist utopia by collectivizing and industrializing the country at the same time. But within two years, all of that collectivization and industrialization led to...mass starvation. Mao was not a patient man. Other Communist Party officials wanted to industrialize the country more gradually, but Mao disagreed. He wanted to do everything at once. It's kind of like when you decide that your New Year's Resolution is to quit smoking and lose weight and exercise and then by February you realize you haven't met any of your goals except for killing 45 million people. It happens. Mao kicked off the Great Leap Forward after traveling to the Soviet Union in late 1957 and meeting Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. When Khrushchev announced that the Soviet Union would overtake the US in industrial output in 15 years, Mao announced that China would overtake the UK in the same amount of time. Mao wasn't just competing with the UK. He was also competing with the Soviet Union. He didn't like having to listen to the Soviets all the time and wanted China to develop its own form of communism. And he saw the Great Leap Forward as his opportunity to do just that. But before the Great Leap Forward could happen, Mao had to purge anyone who was standing in his way. Political purges: a proud communist tradition. Mao started by forcing Party officials who had previously questioned his economic plans to submit self-criticisms. He especially focused on Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, his second-in-command. Zhou confessed to being guilty of “rightist conservative thinking” and repeatedly pledged his loyalty to Mao. This was the beginning of the Anti-Rightist Campaign, which Mao used to end any objections to the Great Leap Forward. By the end of the campaign, millions of people would be purged. So what actually happened during the Great Leap Forward? I'll tell you after the break. Welcome back. The Great Leap Forward started with a crazy competition. Mao pitted Party officials against each other, who all competed for their region to grow the most crops. To meet increasingly impossible targets, people did all kinds of insane things. People worked in the fields day and night. They fertilized fields with things like white sugar, or human hair. People even demolished houses to make fertilizer. They planted crops more deeply and closer together to grow more. And most of all, they lied. Farmers knew that planting crops close together was actually bad and wouldn't increase output, but they were afraid to say anything, because they didn't want to be purged as rightists. Meanwhile Party officials were doing things like moving extra crops to the side of the road when Mao would visit, so it looked like there were bumper harvests. This is a famous photo from the Great Leap Forward. It was meant to show that the wheat crop was so dense that four children could jump on top of it. But the photo is staged. As Mao got more and more reports of record-breaking crop yields, most of which were fake, he believed his plan was working. And he encouraged Chinese people to eat five meals a day. Surely this won't have any unforeseen consequences. To cope with the huge amounts of labor needed for agriculture, some areas started organizing peasant farmers into huge communes that were set up like military units. Mao approved, and by the summer of 1958, Party officials were encouraged to collectivize all of the land. Party officials predicted that China would soon achieve communism. Almost overnight, people's communes sprang up across China. A commune comprised many villages with thousands of families. Each day was strictly regimented. Family life was virtually abolished. Children were placed in communal nurseries while their parents worked around the clock. People ate in the fields, or in communal dining halls. But while Mao liked the communes, Chinese peasants did not. In the most radical communes, people were forced to give up everything they owned, including livestock. So instead, people would kill their animals and eat them before being forced to live in a commune. Because once you eat something, no one can take it away from you. People would sell everything they owned in order to keep the communes from confiscating their property. Communes even destroyed people's houses so they could use the bricks for communal dorms. In some cases, those communal dorms never got built, leaving people homeless. But the biggest problem with the communes were the communal canteens, where everyone was forced to eat. First of all, Party officials had to actually force people to eat at the canteens, by taking away any food they had privately stored, and even confiscating their kitchen utensils. But once people started eating at the canteens, they ate as much as they physically could. Because once you eat something, no one can take it away from you. People would literally eat five meals a day, because Mao said so. And there was massive food waste. In fact, researchers say these communal canteens were one of the biggest reasons for the great famine that would soon follow. So much for agricultural collectivization. Mao's version of industrialization was just as big of a problem. Mao was obsessed with overtaking Great Britain's steel output. But China didn't have enough industrial equipment to do that. Instead, communes set up “backyard furnaces” to smelt iron to make steel. If people didn't work on the furnaces, the communes wouldn't give them food. In the frenzy to smelt iron, people melted down iron tools, even their pots and pans. Which it turns out didn't really matter, since soon there wouldn't be any food to put in those pans anyway. People also cut down entire forests for fuel. But it still wasn't enough. “We burned tables, chairs, window frames, and finally we even opened old coffins and used the wood. They really stank. We kept the fires burning day and night.” In the end, Party officials met their targets. But according to a government report, less than 30 percent of the iron made in these backyard furnaces was even usable to refine into steel. Meanwhile, so many peasant farmers were put on iron and steel making duty that crops were rotting in the fields. Surely this won't have any unforeseen consequences. More after the break. Welcome back. There were signs of famine in China as early as the first year of the Great Leap Forward, 1958. But many of those signs were dismissed by Party officials as the lies of rightists and counter-revolutionaries who were trying to sabotage the glorious march to communism. By 1959 it was unmistakable. Party leaders knew there was widespread famine. But there was another problem. The Chinese regime had borrowed heavily from the Soviet Union to finance the Great Leap Forward. Now they needed money from exports of grain and other food to pay it back. At a secret meeting in Shanghai in 1959, Mao ordered Party officials to take up to one third of all the grain from the communes, more than they had ever taken before. “At the meeting [Mao] announced that 'When there is not enough to eat people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.' That's some real Thanos energy. The Chinese Communist Party also didn't want to lose face internationally by admitting a famine was happening. They even gave away grain for free to their allies during the famine, and they also refused food aid from the US, the Soviet Union, and even the Red Cross. To prevent news of the famine getting out, people were not allowed to leave their local areas, even to beg. “My aunt's family was a typical big family in the countryside with several generations of the family living together. There were 36 people altogether. During the three years of famine, one died after another. Eventually only three people were left alive. At first when someone died, they would take the body and bury it. Later they didn't have the strength to take the bodies out. They could only look at them. They watched the bodies being eaten by rats. And their eyeballs stuck out. People didn't even have the strength to chase the rats away.” There are wide estimates of how many died during the Great Leap Forward. On the low end of the scale, the Chinese Communist Party grudgingly admits that 10 million people died during 1960. Historian Frank Dikotter , who wrote his book Mao's Great Famine based on recently available Chinese Communist Party archives, says the true death toll is 45 million. Dikotter also says that people didn't just die of starvation. He estimates that 2 to 3 million people were purposely killed. Either buried alive, tortured, or beaten to death. He gives examples of a father who was forced to bury his son alive for stealing a handful of grain, and a man who was branded with a hot iron and crushed with a stone for digging up a potato. Even the people who died of starvation were often the victims of Party officials. “Many of the victims did not die because there was no grain available in the villages, instead they were deliberately and selectively deprived of food by local [Party officials].” That included the old, weak, and sick, who were deprived of food because they couldn't work. China achieved communism, all right. The Chinese Communist Party does not officially recognize that the famine was caused by the Great Leap Forward. They call it the “Three Years of Natural Disasters” or the “Three Years of Difficulty.” But whatever natural disasters there may have been were minor compared to the destruction caused by the Communist Party's collectivization and industrialization schemes. Like the massive deforestation to fuel the backyard furnaces. And a campaign to kill sparrows, which led to more locusts eating crops. Mao's Great Leap Forward was a huge catastrophe that killed 45 million people and totally destroyed the economy. It would take years for the country to recover. It was a giant mistake for Mao. But he definitely learned his lesson. You see, the real problem facing the Great Leap Forward wasn't the rightists. It was the counterrevolutionaries! Which is why he then launched the Cultural Revolution. Surely this won't have any unforeseen consequences. But that's a topic for another segment of 100 Years of Things That Never Happened. And now it's time for me to answer a question from a fan who supports China Uncensored on the crowdfunding website Patreon. Hontas Farmer asks, Do you think that now this is no longer a front in the culture war or a political campaign the US will take real action against China's assets for damage caused by this virus? For that matter if we financed the gain of function research might the US be liable? That was on an episode we did about how the Chinese Communist Party is censoring the science around the coronavirus outbreak, and specifically trying to discredit the lab leak hypothesis. Well Hontas, I think that even though Trump is out of office, the coronavirus is still a pretty big part of the cultural war in the U.S.President Biden has said that he wants US intelligence agencies to look into the lab leak hypothesis. But since there probably will never be absolute proof it was a lab leak, the US government probably won't take financial action against the Chinese regime. And yes, you also point out something that's kind of tricky for the U.S. The U.S. did finance gain of function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. And gain-of-function research is widely considered normal in the scientific community. So if this pandemic was caused by a lab leak, there's a bigger issue about whether we should even be doing this kind of research at all, even if it's not in China. Thanks for your question, Hontas Farmer. And a big thank you to everyone who supports China Uncensored on Patreon. We could not do this show without you. So thank you for joining us in the fight to expose the Chinese Communist Party to the world. If you're interested in joining, head over to Patreon.com/ChinaUncensored.