Great Leap

Full Program Description

Great Leap
China yields to Chairman Mao
Original broadcast: Wednesday, June 16, 1999 at 9pm
(check local listings for re-broadcast dates)

"The big bosses in our factory were executed immediately, the less important ones were forced to reform through hard labor. We were asked to keep an eye on them. We hated them so much, we beat them if they didn't work hard enough. That's the way they'd treated us. In the past, they'd been the masters; now, we were."
-- Qi Youyi, factory worker (1954), Beijing

Thirty years after the rise of communism in the USSR, Mao Zedong's People's Liberation Army took control of China. Drawing his power from the large peasant population, Mao promised China a Communist society free of inequality, poverty, foreign domination -- and the corruption and revisionism he believed had derailed the Soviet original.

China's peasant farmers were at last granted the land reform they'd wanted for so long. Women were given new rights at work and in marriage. But, in his fervor to harness the energy and idealism of the people, Mao set in motion a series of cataclysmic social experiments in which millions suffered and died as they attempted the "great leap" toward Mao's new society.

Mao's desire to overtake Western industry and food production led to goals of doubling the production of food and steel in a year. Zealous adherence to Mao's assurance that "revolutionary enthusiasm will triumph over all obstacles" led competing communes to make absurd pledges about food production -- contributing to the dangerous fiction that food was plentiful. In 1960, fiction turned to famine: more than twenty million died from starvation.

In 1966, when Mao felt China was veering down "the capitalist road," he unleashed the Cultural Revolution, in which students were encouraged to question authority at all levels, and unspeakable violence against intellectuals and other "subversives" swept the country. Mao's Red Guards attacked the "Four Olds": old habits, ideas, customs, and culture. Books were burned and museums pillaged. Schools and hospitals closed. Offices and factories were in chaos. Infighting within the Guards led to anarchy. China was soon in the grips of perpetual revolution -- until 1976: With Mao's death came the end of the Cultural Revolution, and a re-emergent China's new focus on stability and increasing prosperity.

The people remember: Mao Zedong, the People's Liberation Army, "take-over" of 1949, land reform, Great Leap Forward, denunciation meetings, communes, Cultural Revolution, Red Guards, arrest of Gang of Four, Deng Xiaoping.

Great Leap is produced and directed by Jennifer Clayton. Series senior producer is David Espar. Series executive producer for WGBH Boston is Zvi Dor-Ner; Peter Pagnamenta is executive producer for the BBC.

John Forsythe narrates.

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