First Five Year Plan (第一个五年计划) Overview

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China and the completion of Land Reform, Mao’s next aim was to grow the economy and industrialise the nation. The model of economic development used by Mao was adapted from the Soviet Union. As Spence (1991:541) explains: ‘ a sequence of five-year plans was believed to have been responsible for the nation’s emergence as a world-class power in the 1930s, with the ability to withstand and repulse the full force of Germany’s attack in World War II. That victory in turn allowed the USSR to expand its influence in Europe at the war’s end, despite the United States’ effort to the contrary.’ Indeed, Mao realised a strong economy would translate into increased recognition and power on the world stage. In 1953, Mao launched China’s First Five Year Plan, which was primarily based on keeping foreign imports to a minimum and rapidly increasing the outputs of heavy industry. Agricultural outputs were used to feed the urban population and support industrial growth.


Source 1 : Industry Anon. Anshan Steel in the 1950s

Steel was a core target for development. By the end of the first five year plan, the northern city of Anshan in Liaoning province was responsible for 40% of China’s total steel production (Source 1). During the five year plan steel output increased from 1.3 million tonnes in 1952 to 5.2 million tonnes in 1957 (Source 2). Beyond Anshan, the rural peasantry were encouraged to set up their own ‘backyard furnaces’ to further boost steel production (see collectivisation of agriculture). However, Brennan (1959:272) notes that after the culmination of the first five year plan, the central committee of the CCP ‘issued, on 1 September 1958, a call to the entire nation to double steel output by the end of this year.’ Clearly, many party officials were worried about their ability to meet this unrealistic target, especially those in Liaoning where the Anshan steel plant was located. Having written a letter explaining the difficulties they faced, ‘one month later, on 13 October, the Liaoning Committee of the Party underwent a major purge. It is interesting in the context of the steel campaign, to note that one of the ‘crimes’ of the 'anti-party' group was 'Liaoning's failure to make outstanding achievements’ (Brennan:1959:275). Indeed, whilst in crude economic terms the first five year plan was undeniably a success, it is clear that many officials also massaged production figures in order to avoid the fate of the more honest officials in Liaoning. Moreover, the purge in Liaoning is testament to the social control exerted not only on the masses but also on party officials.


Source 2 : Economic Aims Table detailing growth of heavy industry during the first five year plan.

Whilst communes exerted a form of social control in rural areas, the danwei or work unit was the urban equivalent, and these were established at the beginning of the first five year plan. David Bray (2005:5) describes the danwei in the following manner: ’ the danwei is the foundation of urban China. It is the source of employment and material support for the majority of urban residents; it organises, regulates, polices, trains, educates and protects them; it provides them with an identity and face; and, within distinct spatial units, it forms integrated communities through which urban residents derive their sense of place and social belonging.’  A prime example demonstrating the all-encompassing functionality of danwei was Caoyang model village (Source 3) built at the start of the first five year plan in 1953. Many residents had moved out of slum dwellings into the complex. Although increased productivity was the key driver of the first five year plan, perhaps this wasn’t the primary goal of the danwei. As Gang (2012:479) notes: ‘the practical and concrete value of the New Workers’ Village was not as great as its symbolic value […] the Caoyang New Workers’ Village, Shanghai’s first of its kind, became a symbol for a newly hegemonic working class, a symbol to be broadcast all over the city and all over the country.‘ Notably, the kitchens and toilets in the workers village were public so in effect workers were living not only with their families but with their colleagues too. This instilled a form of collective responsibility over daily life, and a people were not only accountable to their family, friends or work colleagues, but to those in leadership positions of the danwei.


Source 3 Danwei (work units): Anon. (1952) Caoyang Model Village

Experts from the Soviet Union had been instrumental in the proposal and execution of urban planning projects but also in many other aspects of the first five year plan. After winning the Civil War, Mao signed the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship. This brought many advantages and disadvantages. As Spence (1991:544) notes: ‘This was the period of closest collaboration between China and the Soviet Union. Thousands of Soviet technical advisors came to China to help with factory building, industrial planning, the development of hydroelectric power, the extension of the railway network, and even urban architecture.’ Indeed, Source 4 depicts a soviet expert demonstrating an experiment to Chinese workers at the Beijing Petroleum Institute. Before the arrival of Soviet experts China had previously been considered an oil-poor country, but a report produced by Soviet visitors suggested that China could become entirely self-sufficient in oil production. Moreover, ‘China’s petroleum reached the levels of the Soviet Union during its first five year plan […] such rapid industrialisation had rarely been seen anywhere in the world and was of course inseparable from the aid given by the Soviet Union’ (Zhou: 2014,100). However, Soviet experts were not free of charge.  Although Stalin granted Mao a $300 million loan, this was subject to a very high rate of interest. Mao’s hands were tied as he feared a US invasion to reinstate Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, so support of the USSR acted as a deterrent. After the first five year plan, tensions between China and the Soviet Union began to emerge. Stalin had died in 1953 and the new leader Khruschev had serious ideological differences with Mao. He had refused to lend Mao support to invade Taiwan in 1958,  and reneged on a prior promise to help China develop nuclear weapons. From 1958 onwards, Soviet aid and experts were withdrawn.


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Source 4: Soviet Experts Anon (1954) Soviet experts and teachers conduct experiments at the Beijing Petroleum Institute

Mao was not only concerned with international relations between Communist nations but also internal relations between the masses and the party. By 1956, Mao felt in a relatively stable position of power, and launched the Hundred Flowers Campaign. At a state conference Mao proclaimed ‘Let one hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend’ encouraging constructive criticism of the party as a means for improvement. In particular, Mao wanted further ideas that would boost the economic success of the five year plan. Moreover, he did not want to suffer the same fate as Stalin, who was posthumously criticised by the new leader of the USSR, Khruschev. It was particularly intellectuals who heeded Mao’s call and not the masses. Of course, this clashed with Mao’s principle of the mass line which stipulated that the bourgeoisie should study and learn from the masses. As Spence (1991, 570) notes: ’They protested CCP control over intellectuals, the harshness of previous mass campaigns such as that against counterrevolutionaries, the slavish following of Soviet models, the low standard of living in China, the proscription (banning) of foreign literature, economic corruption amongst party cadres and the fact that ‘party members enjoy many privileges which make them a race apart […] a former friend of Lu Xun wrote that there had been more freedom of speech for writers in Chongqing under Chiang Kai-Shek.’ Mao now altered his stance, stating that criticism was only permissible if it contributed to the strengthening of the socialist government. He instigated a propaganda backlash against intellectuals who had spoken out. Certain scholars believe Mao launched the hundred flowers campaign to make intellectuals feel that their skills were valuable in the execution of the five year plan. It is also possible that Mao wished to root out any undercurrents of dissent by encouraging people to openly air their views. In any case, what followed was a brutal backlash known as the anti-rightist campaign.

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Source 5: Hundred Flowers Parade (Photograph)

The anti-rightist campaign began in June 1957. Mao published an article in the People’s Daily branding those who had spoken out during the hundred flowers campaign as ‘rightist.’  Source 6 is an American Public Broadcasting service documentary that includes testimony from those who had suffered as rightists (Starts at 26 minutes). In the video, a scene depicting a university professor Ge Peiqi at the People’s University of Beijing being publicly criticised is shown. He spent the following two decades assigned to hard labour. Mao crudely estimated that about 10% of people were rightists leading party officials to attempt to round up as many people as possible to match that figure. Estimates of victims are in the range of between half and three quarters of a million people. Another victim of the anti-rightist movement was Harry Wu. Wu was branded a rightist whilst studying at the Beijing Geological institute. He had commented that the Communist Party had previously been unfair in branding intellectuals counterrevolutionaries and he did not feel he should hand over his personal diary to party members as it was an infringement of privacy. Initially, Wu’s punishment was lighter than many – he was followed around campus by a party member. He recounts (1994:75):

‘As a rightist, I remained under formal continual surveillance with Kong as my keeper. We both knew that if he discharged this responsibility satisfactorily, he could conclude his probationary period as a prospective party member and take the formal oath. It would serve him well to guard me strictly. He followed me to the cafeteria, the dormitory and even the latrine. I could go to class or to the library in the evening only after informing him and I could not leave the campus at any time. I ate alone, apart from my classmates, as no one would dare associate with an enemy of the party.’

After a forbidden liaison with a nurse and helping someone with money he was sentenced to ‘reform through labour’. He lived in camps for 19 years where he witnessed torture, death, starvation and suicide. His full account is available here (Source 7).

Although this purge cemented Mao’s power, famine was rife in rural areas by 1958 due to production inefficiencies of the Great Leap Forward, exaggerated harvests and drought. Mao resigned his position as state chairman but retained his status as head of the Communist Party. Mao was inviting a leadership challenge to see if anyone would question his authority. When Peng Dehuai publicly brought up scenes of famine that he had witnessed at a conference, he was subsequently purged.

Despite the negative effects of such rapid development, Mao wanted to industrialise China even faster and so in 1958, the ‘Great Leap Forward’, in effect the second five year plan, was announced. Mao wanted China’s economy to overtake Britain within 15 years. The leap was also designed to show the Soviet Union that China was capable of even greater economic development than its ‘teacher’, especially  given the thaw in relations. The leap emphasised steel production even more than during the five year plan. Counter to the horror of famine (see collectivisation of agriculture) propaganda posters of the era depict a thriving economy (Source 8). In this image Prosperity brought by the Dragon and Phoenix, the phoenix emerges from a bale of hay whilst the dragon emanates from a steel furnace, portraying supposed harmony between urban and rural production. In fact, in order to feed urban workers, rural peasants were overworked, dedicating less time to agriculture in favour of steel, yet another cause of the Great Famine.

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Source 8: Great Leap Forward Jiang Mi (1959) Prosperity brought by the dragon and the phoenix (poster)

In sum, Mao’s first five year plan undoubtedly initiated rapid economic development and other positive changes in China. For example, life expectancy rose from 36 to 47 years. Heavy industry rivalled that of the Soviet Union. Economic growth was not, however, accompanied by political freedom. For the urban masses, life was regulated by the danwei where shared facilities were intended to promote collectivism and weaken family and other social bonds. Since production was so heavily emphasised, many party officials exaggerated figures instead of expressing doubt that targets could be met. Experts from the Soviet Union were instrumental in many of China’s industries but their expertise came at a cost and eventually a rift developed between Mao and the new leader Krushchev. Intellectuals who spoke out against the party faced hard labour whilst the Great Leap Forward ended in famine. As such, one could argue that whilst on paper, the five year plan was a success, a lack of political freedom ensured its failure. In order to satisfy party directives exaggerated figures impinged upon food supplies, the expulsion of experts and the denunciation of technically skilled intellectuals meant that Mao’s China had a limited talent pool to draw from and hence many avoidable errors were committed with dire consequences.


Bray, D., (2005) Social Space and Governance in Urban China: The Danwei System from Origins to Reform. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Univ. Press.

Brennan, E. J. (1959) 'The Current Chinese Steel Campaign: A Brief History and Evaluation'. Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review 48 (191), 273-290.

Gang, L. (2012) 'Socialist Shanghai, the Struggle for Space, and the Production of Space: A Reading of the Urban Text and the Media Text'. Postcolonial Studies 15 (4), 467-484.

Spence, J. D. (1991) The Search for Modern China. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Wu, H., (1994) Bitter Winds : A Memoir of My Years in China's Gulag. New York: Wiley.

Zhou, H., (2016) Foreign Aid in China. [Place of publication not identified]: Springer-Verlag Berlin.

First Five Year Plan Overview