The “Great Cuttings”

The “Great Cuttings”


S. Aragon


Deforestation during the Great Leap Forward

 Forests are huge components of a nation’s economy and environment and the scarcity of this resource would present the new Republic with many challenges. The Great Cuttings refers to rapid deforestation periods that aimed at boosting the Chinese economy. It gives insight about the historical significance that forests can play in a country’s economic development and how we might be able to use China’s preservation tactics in deforested parts of the globe in the future. These short term economic benefits were far too high for PRC leaders to prioritize ecological degradation. 


 In order for forests to be used for energy and building in a sustainable manner, their needs to be an organized system in place that limits and regulates their harvesting. However, the three periods of deforestation in P.R.C. (which started in 1949) history were called the “Three Great Cuttings” because deforestation outpaced the rate of tree growth. 

Mao Zedong: Leader of the PRC

 Mao Zedong was one of the early Socialist leaders who thought that the higher the population of China was, the more powerful China could become. Lumber was used in almost every aspect of the rapid industrialization effort: from building houses, railroads, dikes and dams, it is one of the most basic resources that a country needed to industrialize.

We will see how a lack of forests will allow soil to erode faster and eventually spark more droughts and floods due to more sediment being carried in the huge river systems of China.  By going through specific eras of the “Great Cuttings” it will become evident how this added to the ongoing state-sponsored deforestation, including the spasms of tree felling after the various changes in forest ownerships.

The First Great Cutting (1958-1962)

The first era of the “Great Cuttings” occurred during the Maoist era of ‘The Great Leap Forward’ and aimed to rapidly transform the country from an agrarian economy into a socialist society through rapid industrialization and collectivization.

Backyard steel furnaces

The first Great Cutting had huge implications on the agricultural industry where the government introduced mandatory agricultural collectivization. This allowed the government to hold much more control over farmers and many even experienced forced labor. This huge amount of lumber would feed the new establishment of small backyard steel furnaces. Mao had required these furnaces in every commune and in each urban neighborhood. These backyard furnaces were fed by the deforestation from the the first “Great Cutting” where the local environment was denuded of trees and wood taken from the doors and furniture of peasants’ houses. These furnaces were made to aid in the iron production for the industrialization effort.

Mao continued to support these inefficient steel furnaces even when he knew they were inefficient.

Tracking the path of deforestation during this era exemplifies the important shift away from agricultural work and towards industrial work, which led to millions of deaths from severe famine, which would eventually lead to the collapse of the Chinese economy by 1961.

The Second Great Cutting (1966-1976)

The second “Great Cutting” occurred during the “Third Front” Movement in the  Cultural Revolution decade and had new implications for China’s logging industry. This unstable time where China was split with both the Soviet Union and the United States led CCP leaders to “conclude that China needed to achieve industrial and food security to protect against the event of a nuclear attack.”  The Third Front was a plan to organize a self-sufficient industrial powerhouse in remote south west regions of China.

A big part of this Great Cutting was the extensive logging that was required to build the industrial complexes as well as the railroads for the transportation of these goods. The second “Great Cutting” facilitated a new industrial structure, beginning with mining and energy production, and culminating in the assembling of sophisticated machinery, including military hardware. However, the ideal of the Third Front being a new era of “self-reliance” would have a much larger impact on Chinese forests.

Vast amount of lumber were used to create Chinese railroad networks

The establishment of grain as the ideal staple to suffice China’s agricultural issues lead to massive deforestation in order to grow vast quantities of grain. The architects of this Cultural Revolution thought forests were actually an ‘inefficient’ use of land and that trees were either to be exploited or moved out of the way for the production of both grain and cash crops. 

The second Great Cutting helped build the industrial factories and military bases in West China.

Some pastoral regions made attempts find a proper balance of agriculture within the overall development of the economy without conceding the “moral duty” of grain self-sufficiency. However, the lack of environmental knowledge often negated these efforts. Mao’s negligence towards alternative ways of increasing agricultural output also fueled further deforestation.

The Third Great Cutting (1978-1988)

Deng Xiaoping

In the third “Great Cutting,” Chinese leaders started to understand the ecological importance of forests. As part of Deng Xiaoping’s reform plan, the government started to encourage private farmers to reforest degraded lands and mindfully harvest newfound timer wealth. These efforts started the de-collectivization of agriculture, allowing farmers to start their own businesses once again.


The next step in Deng’s reform process involved the privatization and contracting out of much state-owned industry and the lifting of price controls, protectionist policies, and regulations, although state monopolies in sectors such as banking and petroleum remained. While this did pass much of the forestland into the hands of peasant families, many of them started illegally cutting healthy forests in south and southwest China for profit to meet increased demands. However, these new reform laws also allowed for “rural people to build their own homes, which over half of the rural households did.” However, Deng’s Reforms did lead to the the adoption of Industrial Responsibility System.

This eventually which promoted the development of state-owned enterprise by allowing individuals or groups to manage the enterprise by contract. Private businesses were allowed to operate for the first time since the Communist takeover, and they gradually began to make up a greater percentage of industrial output. 

Levels of Water Erosion in China during the Third Great Cutting

The newly constructed homes from 1981-1985 alone lead to the deforestation of over 195 million cubic meters of timber, which equates to about a year’s worth of growth from all of the Chinese forests. This Great Cutting contributed greatly towards an increase in water erosion, which lead to more frequent flooding. Becoming a more market driven economy seemed to play towards China’s favor, but many knew that this rate of deforestation was not sustainable.

Market Driven Cuttings (1992-1998)

This last “Great Cutting” was driven by the nationwide initiative to establish a new market economy. While these new freedoms generated massive economic growth in China, it also allowed the state-owned forest companies to gain considerable freedom from the Ministry of Forest.

Market Driven Cuttings in China

With new market driven laws in place, there was much less government interference that forest companies had to deal with. As a result, forest companies “were able to respond to market needs and thus improve economic efficiency because they were now armed with heavy machines and platoons with chainsaws.” As a result, a new generation of unregulated deforestation would lead to private companies clearing huge swaths of forested mountains from western Sichuan and Qinling Mountains.

Qinling Mountains

The year of 1998, brought “an unusual climatic event that led to huge downpours of rain across south and central China which resulted in massive flooding along the Yangtze River.

1998 flooding of the Yangtze River

In Sichuan and the Qinling Mountains,  Logging companies started to capitalize on the high demand market for old growth timber that was still prevalent there.Without these ancient roots absorbing the water, runoff water went straight into the River and flooding the homes and farmlands of millions of people.


The “Three Great Cuttings” highlight the basis for many of China’s economic and political problems during the countries new socialists era. The Great Leap Forward lead to the explosion of farmland during the Cultural Revolution because its policies encouraged forests to be removed for the production of grain and other agricultural products.

Map of Qinling Mountains

The ecological importance was continuously undermined by the new socialists leaders in favor of rapid growth. This was largely driven by the backyard blast furnaces and the unrealistic hope that China could rapidly industrialize by tapping into the enthusiasm and resources of rural people. While the return of the age-old style of Chinese farming gave many farmers their land back to them, the growing demand they were forced to keep up with meant that entire forests needed to be completely scraped away for grain.

Recovering Forests in the Sichuan Mountains

Throughout China’s socialist history, leaders have undermined their significance. In order to generate long-term economic growth, forests and other basic environmental resources need to be taken into consideration during the policy making process. Admittedly, finding this balance will not be an easy task due to China’s enormous demand for lumber, but with new methods of scientific monitoring and environmentally friendly policy making, the harmful effects of deforestation in China can be dampened.



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