The problem is, the PRC overproduced pig iron, and while ploughshares were needed, traditional blacksmithing techniques could produce them without the need for intensive steel production. What China needed, ultimately, was not impossible quantities of ploughshares but tractors, and as a base for the growth of other industries small village furnaces were a terrible idea because they couldn't steel of high enough quality. However, they produced vast, vast quantities of it at a time when food supplies were barely existent and the labour could have been better used.
... Yes, technically? You have to remember that iron is important in numerous aspects of village life however. Silo construction, (crappy) nails for building, pest resistant pens that will repulse wild dogs or the like getting into coops. Moreover it became a versatile trade good for touring Red Army brigades to pick up, deliver to better smelters for further processing, in exchange for helping villages that had been cleared out by Kuomintang conflict, banditry, or IJA aggression. There was a shitload of land in the North/Northeast that were largely emptied of people, and you need at least a high quantity of iron sheeting if you're expecting millions of people to go back to these emptied villages and cultivate land. Resettling people there means a high demand for sheet iron.
Moreover how exactly do you think they were going to get these tractors or even diesel? The Army engineers and mechanics had cannibalized heavier IJA transport trucks and other vehicles into earth movers. Diesel has a life expectancy of roughly two years with special additives they use to keep it partly resistant to hygroscopic forces that would otherwise eventually foul engines, plugs and carburetors.
Tractors were a big thing concerning The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, in fact during my Chinese Media of the 20th century elective I did way back when during my first degree, we explored historical aspects of Chinese films of the era circa 1910s to 1990s.
A movie called Breaking with Old Ideas stands out particularly. One of the principle characters is a 17 year old person who wants to study applied veterinarian science and tractor construction at a local 'Labour University'. The aged (and hinted to be former Confucian) tutor shook his head at application to the village school, but this travelling representative of the party lifts his (student's) hand and says; "The callouses on his palm is his entrance exam." It was a pretty high budget (at the time) piece of propaganda for outlying Mao's Cultural Revolution, in a time when media was (even more) highly controlled.
The thing is they didn't have many trucks for soldiers.... much less the road networks to support it. Mechanization became a later aspect of Maoist China, however. And efforts were made even in the latr 50s to try to transform subsidised iron and steel works to the process of producing earthmovers and the like.
Which began in 1953 as a consolidated public transit and earth moving motors company. Focussed majoritively on making parts for existing machines left over by the war that were cannibalized into light buses and trucks.
That was one of the first motor industries created during the first year of China's Five Year Plan.
In fact, also interesting, in that same movie it makes a big deal for this new graduate overseer of the labour university who rock climbs, navigates rivers on foot rafts, etc... all so he can get to this isolated village labour university. Now you could write that off as; "Of course the heroic labourer-soldier who fought the Japanese was a brave, hardworking, physically fit person who put himself through dangers just to get to his students!" But the real message it was conveying is a graphical examination that infrastructure was lacking...and China's mainland terrain is not a thing to sneeze at.
I don't know, I found it interesting. Kind of a running theme of 50s and 60s Chinese media. Soil, rock, rivers, forest.
I will say Mao lived too long... if he died in 1966 he would have been remembered as a war hero and basically father of late-modern China. Even the failures of TGLF, there is reasonable understanding the country was still suffering the hardship of post-colonialism.
Somtimes people live too long.
Mao's motivations were not based on any kind of pragmatic idea of trading short term hardship for long term success, but on an ideological belief in the inherent quality of the ordinary rural peasant and a deep distrust of technical knowledge and expertise as 'bourgois' qualities (these were, of course, the same qualities which would be actively purged during the cultural revolution). The idea of ordinary people making steel in their backyards was a fantasy, but it's a fantasy which played to Mao's idealism over more sober ideas.
I think you're reaching here. For example, The White Haired Girl. Infamous Peking-era piece. The insinuation is quite clear, the revolution needed to go to all people, every person, everywhere. The enemy wasn't merely the Japanese, it wasn't merely the landlords, it was superstition and systemic oppression. This is principally why he wanted revolutionaries to go to the countryside. Go to the places where women are treated like garbage simply on the basis of superstitions and 'counter-revolutionary' ideas of blocking equality of education, work and social responsibility.
So no ... I don't buy that argument Mao disliked knowledge. He disliked superstition. He disliked the Confucian tutor, and sought to replace them. He dislike the Taoist, and sought to have them chastised by unhappy crowds who 'recognized their anti-revolutionary attitudes'. If he 'disliked' knowledge, he wouldn't have massively expanded public education to men, women and children equally. In fact it was counter revolutionary and thoroughly chastised to keep daughters out of public education.
He disliked the vague academia of insulated, sterile tutors in cities. He disliked the idea that education should be divorced from praxis and realities of improving the lives of the rest of the social unit. Mao was all for teaching people medicine and how to repair tractors, however. He made it free.
In fact, a movie that came out that was all about showing the virtues of the Cultural Revolution, was precisely about showing the redemption of a veterinarian and tractor mechanic being trained in just those things at the labour university in the village. How he spurns his father trying to talk him into professionally desexing unwanted gene stock of pen held pigs for money outside the village. Instead, he casts down his wallet full of coins and banknotes and decides to work in the village for free.
Mao had no problem with technical skills. He had a problem with people using them in a fashion that sought to take talent out of the village and make one's skills and their purchase more mercenarial. He dislike bourgeois attitudes to education. Not knowledge. Being a 'peasant hero' didn't mean unskilled. It meant marrying your skills to the betterment of the commune and liberating oneself from traditional attachments when they would compromise this.
I think we have to be very careful judging Mao as anything less than a man of his time and place. This was a person that lived through two wars, he was gifted at military tactics, understood logistics if his actions and operational planning can speak for itself, and he was a middling structuralist philosopher. All of which doesn't really paint the idea he had his head in the clouds and can't understand tactile ideas of industry.
You can hedge your bets and say he was gambling ... but when you compare his other industrial policies (the wandering Red Army medic program, patient transport to field hospitals, etc) that did contribute great successes to living standards and disease management, and for the first time prevented peasants dying from simple things like influenza outbreaks and appendicitis. It's hard to say he was merely a fantasist.
There is a reason why many mainland Chinese families still remember Mao warmly even if they supported a Deng Xiaoping revisionism (even movies in the post Gang of Four era don't display Mao as bad... merely that a new way is needed, such as One and Eight). A good pro-Deng film to watch. It's adequate to call him a leader of hard men and women, not a politician in times of peace and plenty. You can compare him favourably to the actions of his contemporaries like Churchill, who willingly starved millions and caused more war casualties on British subjects than the indirect and direct war prosecution of the combined actions of the entire Axis forces.
Moreover, Mao wasn't a Leninist... he wasn't a conventional communist in the sense that he *hated* the big city model as you rightly put forward, but I think we're being uncharitable saying he wasn't a realist. He was a successful leader of soldiers (people expected and damn near required to be sacrificed upon the altar of victory) in possibly the worst suffering theatre of the Pacific War (and arguably the entirety of WW2) ... that would breed hard hearts, not flightful minds.
We have to separate the realities that he knew about, from the optics he cultivated so that people would follow him to Hell and back if necessary.
Compare the great leap forward to the first two five year plans. In human terms, this was not a good time to be a poor peasant in the Soviet Union. Millions died from starvation, and many, many more lives were upended as traditional social networks and institutions which had governed life for centuries was suddenly overturned. However, thanks to the plans the Union went from being a barely industrialised agricultural society to a major industrial power (which would ultimately be able to match and surpass Nazi Germany) in the space of a decade. Pragmatically, Stalin's cruelty may well have saved the world.
Basically, it's one thing to say that life is cheap, but that doesn't excuse (even contextually) selling lives for ideas alone, or on faulty reasoning.
But you're comparing two different people. In two different environments. Barring the Allied Intervention in Russia of 1918 the Soviets could reorganise what was largely untouched countrysides. They could build railways, megafactories, and practically pillage Western ideas of engineering. They had copious access to raw materials, and they could mechanize.
The Soviets beat Western forces... and actually consolidated ground and territory.
The flipside of that is China... where Mao inherited not only an invaded country, but one fully in the throws of two civil and international conflicts that immediately plagued the nation-to-be. Remember, China at the time didn't even have a solid understanding of its geographic borders even. And was riddled on all sides by multiple powerful Western colonisers. There were four European powers claiming massive stretches the coastline, and one claiming almost half the stretch of the Yangtze valley. Shanghai and the local cantons was still split up between 11 individual international state interests by 1949.
So with all of this naked expansionism and borders that could at best be described as 'liquid' (Tonkin, An Nan Suzerainty (afterwards Annam), etc...), how exactly did you expect the first years of communist rule to look once the Kuomintang was overthrown? After all, the Kuomintang did fuck all to curb constant border skirmishes, banditry, invasion, or land disputes. Hell, I'm not even including ethnic divides in Western China... You effectively had entire regions populated heavily by Iranic ethnic groups living within the old Qing imperial boundaries and once that fell by the time of the Xinhai revolution, they were left in a sort of limbo state ...
Putting aside all of these questions of how you can't compare the Soviet situation to China... only 4 years before the rise of Khrushchev, you had European and U.S. interests still squabbling over patches of Chinese rivers, coasts, farmland, islands, and deep sea ports. By the time of Yeltsin and the formal collapse of the U.S.S.R, China was/is set to become the world's foremost economic power and wielded far greater political capital and leverage in the international community than the U.S.S.R could ever dream of.
I'd say it's working out pretty well for them... It's not the China Mao would have wanted, but it's not the China we would have had without Mao.
Keep in mind, China's living standards did improve under Mao. In terms of life expectancy it doubled. In terms of raw production and beating famine, it was successful. I find it odd you point to the Soviet's capacity to mass industrialize, despite having a 30 year advantage of reorganisation by the time Mao had truly solidified a hint of an idea of a unified China... yet not recognize the power that is China, which has become a center of world trade off the strong basis of the mass industrialization that was his policies.
The effectiveness of the Chinese public education system was a crowning achievement. The establishment of the mobile medical service saved countless people and improved longterm productivity rates. The heavy focus on regional based industries to meet regional solutions also help pave a strong tradition of road, bridge and rail workers that China had none of is also a remarkable achievement.
While it might pain our more humanist intentions, sometimes you need strong leadership to survive what is, now, unthinkable hardship and suffering. I doubt many countries would have survived to maintain their sovereignty, much less personal sanity of the masses, in its stead.
And again, much of that can be attributed to obscene economic mismanagement by colonial authorities and overt, ideological racism by the British establishment. To be fair, colonial India was tightly intergrated into a colonial global trade system which the war had disrupted, so we can blame a little of that failure on the war, but for the most part it was just incompetence for which people can rightly be held to account. I think the same is true of the Great Leap Forward.
The Great Leap Forward did not meet all its goals, no. But was anybody realistically expecting it to? The two Five Year Plans hardly prepared adequately the Soviets to meet the Wehrmacht... but given that we can forgive the immensity of the challenge of successfully turning back of the largest invasion in all human history, we bite our tongues. The Great Leap Forward was never going to achieve a worker paradise. Half of China was still undocumented people that were tallied up in terms of rough numbers rather than actual names, with actual patient and familial histories.
But then again it's not like you can sell that to the people that; "You know what? Millions will die. Millions more will suffer. But through direct control of regional assets, collectivization and new standards of industrial management to transform wasteful private assets into centres of industry that can meet the challenges of a hostile world that still laye beyond our doorstep ... we need to take this step."
No, you're going sell it as; "Fucking rainbows for everybody. Red rainbows. Best kind of rainbow."
As awful as TGLF and Cultural Revolution were, they none the less saw the largest, most rapid increase in life expectancy the world has ever known. Literacy rates skyrocketed. Women readily received tertiary education. A standardized, national language was cultivated ... the first time in two thousand years. You saw the nations first mass road and bridge building program that linked people to more efficient distributive services. Medical staff and teaching staff trebled and quadrupled in a decade and a half.
That wasn't a fluke, and such rapid social evolution doesn't come without a price. People need to remember ... Australia, Canada and New Zealand are the only really successful nations that survived post colonialism without horrific hardship and incessant warfare.
No other European colonized or puppet-state. Only three modern nations of a world that was occupied, brutalized and exploited survived their postcolonialism without civil and international conflicts. And if you include the wars British imperialists dragged fledgling nations like Australia through, perhaps the most accurate number is two ... and depending on the specifics of independence, and the length of time, one... and if you disinclude all the nationswhich still have eurocentric ideas of laws, customs, interpersonal relationships, trade, and governance? Well, zero.
We shouldn't look at China in any different a lens to the hardships that other nations suffer in terms of their postcolonialism.
Let's not have magical ideas about the shape of the world European imperialism left us with. The first half of the 20th century was a worldwide shitshow for a reason.
Nearly all of Australia's neighbours are 75 years or younger.
Thailand is the only country in all of Southeast Asia and Oceania to never have been conquered and utterly colonized, and even then it didn't stop the British and French taking half their stuff for almost a century.
I'm surprised Southeast Asia and Oceania haven't had a major war between eachother given that seemed to be the modus operandi of post-European colonialism in every other region of the world save Antarctica. Not that there hasn't been some 'interesting' potential escalatory flashpoints, mind.
When you compare China's postcolonial period to the rest of the world, you start to see some pretty dire predictions it should have been worse.
Do you kind of get why people might look at Mao and not see the same arguments typically eurocentric academics put forward? It kind of deserves a roll of the eyes... a certain tone deafness that doesn't realize that where China was is where so many postcolonial nations-to-be found themselves in and the results of that are predictable.
I think you're comparing apples with oranges. Not to sound condescending, but I find it's a troubling comparison numerous European academics make ... only to find out that none of them have actually wandered about Southest Asia and the Far East. Actually visited the historical battlefields first hand. Seen the places where the revolts happened. Read the stories and talked to the families who went through it all.
It was a different frontier with different challenges.
It's an intellectual sin, because given the minute age since the postcolonialism of the East many of these people are still alive. And since when did it become admissable to ignore first hand resources? It is thoroughly researchable, and many will talk your ear off just getting a chance to make sure lessons of the past aren't so quickly forgotten or divorced from the human experience.