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Mao had ambitious plans, He wanted to speed up the pace of economic growth, based on industrial development and the collectivization of agriculture; and he wanted to emancipate China from the bonds of the Soviet alliance, which he found increasingly restrictive. Unfortunately, it was at this juncture, in the late 1950s, that Mao’s hitherto deft political touch began to fail him and he launched two disastrous political campaigns that convulsed the country and ultimately damaged his reputation. The Great Leap Forward in 1958, calling for the establishment of small backyard factories in the towns and giant people’s communes (consolidated cooperative enterprises) in the countryside, resulted in an economic lurch backward.
The consequent three bitter years (1959–1961) saw rural peasants perish in the millions due to harsh conditions for the very young, the very old, and the disadvantaged. Chastened, and under criticism from his more moderate colleagues, Mao agreed to step back from the forefront of leadership; he turned his attention to the growing ideological polemic marking the growing Sino-Soviet split and left it to others to repair the untold damage at home.
In his heart, Mao believed that the Great Leap Forward had failed largely because too many party officials did not boldly implement his policies; disparagingly, he compared them to old women tottering about in bound feet. He decided to purge these revisionist (pro-Soviet) officials and others said to be taking the capitalist road (more open to Europe and North from positions of authority. Mao and his militant party faction (the Gang of Four) called upon the nation’s youth to rise up and call the errant officials to account. The result was the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which witnessed the unusual spectacle of the top Communist leader declaring war on his own party organization. Millions of inflamed students and others donned Red Guard armbands, and, waving the Little Red Book (1966) of selected Mao quotations, they proceeded to carry out their assigned mission.
The campaign tore the country apart from 1966 to 1969, forcing Mao to call for military intervention to restore order, and it dragged on destructively until his death in 1976. Still, from the perspective of foreign policy, the Cultural Revolution’s sharp anti-Soviet orientation succeeded in liberating China from its underlying dependency on the Soviet Union, and prepared the nation for a more independent role in international affairs in the years ahead.
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