The first months of the year 1958, the leadership of the CPC toured the country and met at a series of conferences and working sessions during which the idea found shape that China's economy might enter a Great Leap Forward in the course of which the economies of "imperialist" states like Great Britain would be surpassed. Critical elements in this Leap were confidence in the spirit of the masses which would make exact bureaucratic planning as well as the guidance of pure experts redundant.
The spirit of large-scale production projects emerged in some agricultural production cooperatives (APC) in the province of Henan engaging in water conservancy. The workforce needed for such huge projects surpassed that of individual APC and made necessary the merger to larger units. In April 1958, the nearly 10,000 farming households of 27 APCs were liaised to one gargantuan operation unit. The term for such a unit, people's commune (renmin gongshe 人民公社), was coined by Chen Boda 陈伯达 (1904-1989) and was first used in an article in the journal Hongqi 红旗 on 1 July (MacFarquhar 1983: 78). The idea was to give them autarchy in order to make them independently operating economic units. Agriculture and light industry were thus ideally combined, and enriched by the functions of commerce, education, culture, and militia. In practice, the first commune had only been in operation for two months before the idea of people's communes was made public, and Mao's first visit of such units only took place in early August 1958. Mao and the Politbureau gave their consent to the idea on 29 August.
The next idea after the amplification of production units was the exchange of professions. Farmers and workers had to change their profession for a certain time to learn from each other and to level out class differences. Even urban factories should engage in agricultural labour, and schools and universities spend part of their time for industrial production. The first attempts were backyard furnaces in which peasants tried to produce steel.
The first concrete measures for the Great Leap were dediced during a conference of the Enlarged Politbureau at Beidaihe 北戴河, Hebei (Zhonggong zhongyang zhengzhiju kuoda huiyi 中共中央政治局扩大会议), from 17 to 30 August 1958. The meeting was used as a launching pad for a leap towards communism. It abused the excellent economic results of the First Five-Year Plan to project and predict gigantic production increases in the coming years. The discussions of the conference was based on articles of "agricultural leader" Tan Zhenlin, who had forecasted a gain production of 240 or even 300 million tons (over five years). The Conference added a further 50 million on this target, and desired a duplication of the steel output of 1957 to 10.7 million tons (MacFarquhar 1983: 82, 85). Tan had predicted abundance in food, clothing, housing, communications, and higher education - the Chinese version of the Hungarian goulash communism which focused on living standards, albeit not basing on market mechanisms.
In addition to these ideas, bureaucratic borders were to be erased, as well as the difference between private life and communal life, and finally the division between the civilian and the military sphere. Civilian life should become subject to militarization in order to mobilize the revolutionary spirits of the masses for the sake of production. In order to achieve this status of consciousness, the private kitchen was abolished and was transferred to communal canteens. The same is true for tools and other means of production, including the private plots of farmers. Everything should be handed over to the communes as common means of production. Most far-reaching for the state was the abolishment of the difference between the economic realm (communes), the administrative realm (districts or counties) and the Party (district or county committees). Economy and state bureaucracy were thus subordinated to the Party and its aims.
There would be practically no restrictions to the size of production units, so that even people's communes with a size of 20,000 households existed (MacFarquhar 1983: 86). The earlier APCs were transformed into farming zones (gengzuoqu 耕作区), and their farming populations to production brigades (shengchandui 生产队). The life style of the communes was to anticipate communism, with canteen kitchens, kindergartens, nurseries, rest homes for the elderly, schools, and any means of basic services. On the one hand, this measure set free the labour force of women (and gave the impression that private iron cooking pots or pans were superfluous), but the communalization of private plots (not more than 5 % of farming land was intended to be private) deprived families of important sideline incomes for good and bad times.
These plans would be realized step by step, but in the near future, so as to achieve the transition from socialism to communism after a few years, be it 10 or 25 years (Mao), or - in ideal circumstances - even very soon (Liu Shaoqi; MacFarquhar 1983: 88). In the beginning, wages were paid by the communes, first according to labour, but if everything went good, a change to the mode of wages according to need would be possible.
Khrushchev's idea in 1957 had been to surpass the US in steel production, and China imitated this drive by announcing to surpass Great Britain. For this reason, and for the manufacture of tools and machinery needed in agriculture, the production of steel became one focus of the planners of the Great Leap (the other focus was on the grain output). While the 1958 target determined early that year had been 6.2 million tons, as based on the output of 5.35 million tons of 1957, the Politbureau raised this target in May to 8 million tons or more, and Mao himself raised in June the 1958 target to 10.7 million tons. This was the figure endorsed during the Beidaihe Conference. In September, Mao spoke of 11 to 12 million tons, and expected no less than 30 million for the year 1959 and 60 million for 1960. His hope was that in the mid-1970s, China would produce twice as much steel as Great Britain, or 700 million tons (MacFarquhar 1983: 89-90).