The Great Leap Forward centered on a new socioeconomic and political system created in the countryside and in a few urban areas--the people's communes . By the fall of 1958, some 750,000 agricultural producers' cooperatives, now designated as production brigades, had been amalgamated into about 23,500 communes, each averaging 5,000 households, or 22,000 people. The individual commune was placed in control of all the means of production and was to operate as the sole accounting unit; it was subdivided into production brigades (generally coterminous with traditional villages) and production teams. Each commune was planned as a self-supporting community for agriculture, small-scale local industry (for example, the famous backyard pig-iron furnaces), schooling, marketing, administration, and local security (maintained by militia organizations). Organized along paramilitary and laborsaving lines, the commune had communal kitchens, mess halls, and nurseries. In a way, the people's communes constituted a fundamental attack on the institution of the family, especially in a few model areas where radical experiments in communal living--large dormitories in place of the traditional nuclear family housing-- occurred. (These were quickly dropped.) The system also was based on the assumption that it would release additional manpower for such major projects as irrigation works and hydroelectric dams, which were seen as integral parts of the plan for the simultaneous development of industry and agriculture.
The Great Leap Forward was an economic failure. In early 1959, amid signs of rising popular restiveness, the CCP admitted that the favorable production report for 1958 had been exaggerated. Among the Great Leap Forward's economic consequences were a shortage of food (in which natural disasters also played a part); shortages of raw materials for industry; overproduction of poor-quality goods; deterioration of industrial plants through mismanagement; and exhaustion and demoralization of the peasantry and of the intellectuals, not to mention the party and government cadres at all levels. Throughout 1959 efforts to modify the administration of the communes got under way; these were intended partly to restore some material incentives to the production brigades and teams, partly to decentralize control, and partly to house families that had been reunited as household units.
Political consequences were not inconsiderable. In April 1959 Mao, who bore the chief responsibility for the Great Leap Forward fiasco, stepped down from his position as chairman of the People's Republic. The National People's Congress elected Liu Shaoqi as Mao's successor, though Mao remained chairman of the CCP. Moreover, Mao's Great Leap Forward policy came under open criticism at a party conference at Lushan (), Jiangxi Province. The attack was led by Minister of National Defense Peng Dehuai (), who had become troubled by the potentially adverse effect Mao's policies would have on the modernization of the armed forces. Peng argued that "putting politics in command" was no substitute for economic laws and realistic economic policy; unnamed party leaders were also admonished for trying to "jump into communism in one step." After the Lushan showdown, Peng Dehuai, who allegedly had been encouraged by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to oppose Mao, was deposed. Peng was replaced by Lin Biao (), a radical and opportunist Maoist. The new defense minister initiated a systematic purge of Peng's supporters from the military.
Militancy on the domestic front was echoed in external policies. The "soft" foreign policy based on the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence to which China had subscribed in the mid-1950s gave way to a "hard" line in 1958. From August through October of that year, the Chinese resumed a massive artillery bombardment of the Nationalist-held offshore islands of Jinmen ( Chin-men in Wade Giles but often referred to as Kinmen or Quemoy) and Mazu ( Ma-tsu in Wade-Giles). This was accompanied by an aggressive propaganda assault on the United States and a declaration of intent to "liberate" Taiwan.
Chinese control over Xizang had been reasserted in 1950. The socialist revolution that took place thereafter increasingly became a process of sinicization for the Tibetans. Tension culminated in a revolt in 1958-59 and the flight to India by the Dalai Lama, the Tibetans' spiritual and de facto temporal leader. Relations with India--where sympathy for the rebels was aroused--deteriorated as thousands of Tibetan refugees crossed the Indian border. There were several border incidents in 1959, and a brief Sino-Indian border war erupted in October 1962 as China laid claim to Aksai Chin, nearly 103,600 square kilometers of territory that India regarded as its own. The Soviet Union gave India its moral support in the dispute, thus contributing to the growing tension between Beijing and Moscow.
The Sino-Soviet dispute of the late 1950s was the most important development in Chinese foreign relations. The Soviet Union had been China's principal benefactor and ally, but relations between the two were cooling. The Soviet agreement in late 1957 to help China produce its own nuclear weapons and missiles was terminated by mid-1959. From that point until the mid-1960s, the Soviets recalled all of their technicians and advisers from China and reduced or canceled economic and technical aid to China. The discord was occasioned by several factors. The two countries differed in their interpretation of the nature of "peaceful coexistence." The Chinese took a more militant and unyielding position on the issue of anti-imperialist struggle, but the Soviets were unwilling, for example, to give their support on the Taiwan question. In addition, the two communist powers disagreed on doctrinal matters. The Chinese accused the Soviets of "revisionism"; the latter countered with charges of "dogmatism." Rivalry within the international communist movement also exacerbated Sino-Soviet relations. An additional complication was the history of suspicion each side had toward the other, especially the Chinese, who had lost a substantial part of territory to tsarist Russia in the mid-nineteenth century. Whatever the causes of the dispute, the Soviet suspension of aid was a blow to the Chinese scheme for developing industrial and high-level (including nuclear) technology.
Readjustment and Recovery, 1961-65
In 1961 the political tide at home began to swing to the right,
as evidenced by the ascendancy of a more moderate leadership. In
an effort to stabilize the economic front, for example, the
party--still under Mao's titular leadership but under the
dominant influence of Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun
(), Peng Zhen
(), Bo Yibo
and others--initiated a series of corrective
measures. Among these measures was the reorganization of the
commune system, with the result that production brigades and
teams had more say in their own administrative and economic
planning. To gain more effective control from the center, the CCP
reestablished its six regional bureaus and initiated steps aimed
at tightening party discipline and encouraging the leading party
cadres to develop populist-style leadership at all levels. The
efforts were prompted by the party's realization that the
arrogance of party and government functionaries had engendered
only public apathy. On the industrial front, much emphasis was
now placed on realistic and efficient planning; ideological
fervor and mass movements were no longer the controlling themes
of industrial management. Production authority was restored to
factory managers. Another notable emphasis after 1961 was the
party's greater interest in strengthening the defense and
internal security establishment. By early 1965 the country was
well on its way to recovery under the direction of the party
apparatus, or, to be more specific, the Central Committee's
Secretariat headed by Secretary General Deng Xiaoping.