Since the domination of China by Chinese Communist Party over the Kuomintang (KMT, Chinese Nationalist Party), Mao Zedong and his comrades had worked to turn the backward, post-imperial China into a modern industrial titan. After China’s recovery from the Civil War, Mao’s first action had been the first Five-Year Plan (1953-57), emulating the programs of Josef Stalin to improve the USSR. Through socializing private firms and encouraging industrial and agricultural growth, as well as taking advantage of Soviet technological aid, China increased its economic output by an average of 19% per year.
With common land farmed in a cooperative manner, planners hoped for an increase of food production by 270%. However, local managers struggled to keep up with such demand and saw overstating production on paper as the only way keep up. Based on fraudulent numbers as well as excessive hopes, millions of agricultural workers were shifted to the growing industry, causing the production to fall further behind. Overall through the plan, production would increase by 35%, still an impressive amount, but not enough to keep twenty million people from starving to death while government documents said they were well fed.
Unexpectedly, one of the worst agricultural devastations came from an unlikely source: Mao’s hygiene program known as the “Four Pests.” He used his impressive propaganda to model a campaign at eliminating rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows, the last of which was noted as a grain-stealer. The Eurasian Tree Sparrow became the focus of the assault with people tearing down nests, shooting them from the sky, and scaring them to exhaustion by banging pots or drums. Contests led to competition among schools and agencies as to who could kill the most sparrows. Such mass attack nearly wiped out the bird from China. By 1960, however, people realized that the sparrows ate more insects than grain as bug populations had soared. Mao put an end to the campaign against the sparrow, but the damage had been done: massive locust swarms devoured crops across the country. Misuse of pesticides and deforestation compounded the problems, and even more people died from ecological fallout.
The Great Leap Forward ended in 1962, the last part being referred to as the "Three Bitter Years" by many Chinese. While domestic problems abounded, Mao’s government also fell out with the Soviet leadership that before had been a source of inspiration. Mao called Khruschev’s policies “revisionist”, stepping away from the pure ideals of Marxism-Leninism, eventually condemning them publically after promises of endorsing China in the United Nations and delivering nuclear weapons fell through. Without foreign allies, Mao worked increasingly to purge any dissidence within China.
The first moves in 1965 involved criticism of the play Hai Rui Dismissed from Office by Wu Han, Deputy Mayor of Beijing. It had at first been praised, but now Mao took the “corrupt emperor” in the play as an attack on himself. Wu Han was defended by Mayor Peng Zhen, and a propaganda battle erupted between him and Mao’s aide Yao Wenyuan. With the mayor under fire, Mao moved against Yang Shangkun, director of the Party's General Office with accusations of conspiracy.
Rather than take his firing or even attempting to question it, Yang Shangkun decided to rally the anti-Mao members of the Party. It was a political gamble, but the revolutionary movement had always been just that. Allied with Peng Zhen as well as fellow economic moderates Head of State Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping as well as Premier Zhou Enlai, they built up their own propaganda machine capable of defeating Mao’s. Articles and photos showed Mao’s eccentric and especially decadent lifestyle. The people of China became outraged, and Mao attempted to strike back with false criminal charges, but even the People’s Liberation Army had lost support for him.
Finally, in May of 1966, the Politburo of the Communist Party of China released the May 16 Notification, a public announcement condemning Mao’s “imperialism.” Mao fled China, escaping secretly into exile in communist Albania. China, meanwhile, followed the increasingly capitalist economic ideals of Peng and Zhou, what many hard communists deplored as “reactionary” and “bourgeois.” Arguments for the programs of limited free market and open trade showed that China had built an impressive economic base and now needed innovation to flourish.
By the time American President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972, it had lost much of its red tone, even extending invitations for inclusion to Hong Kong and Taiwan as Special Market Areas, creating a balance with capitalism as had been seen in the ceasefire between North and South Vietnam that led to peace agreements in 1973, for which Nixon would win his Peace Prize.
In reality, Mao’s purges went smoothly after the firing of Yang Shangkun. His allies made their own attacks on enemies from other factions, ousting generals and directors of press. With a fully dominated government, Mao began his Cultural Revolution, fed by rallies from the youth deeming themselves as Red Guard and idealism in pure communism through art, rhetoric, and purges of population. Some violence erupted against him, but Mao firmly established himself in the collective Chinese mind.