The Lushan Conference was a meeting of the top leaders of the Communist Party of China held between July and August 1959. The Politburo met in an "expanded session" (Kuoda Huiyi) between July 2 and August 1, followed by the 8th Plenum of the Eighth Central Committee of the Communist Party of China from August 2 – 16. The major topic of discussion was the Great Leap Forward.
The Lushan Conference saw the political purge of the Defence Minister, Marshal Peng Dehuai, whose criticism of some aspects of the Great Leap Forward was seen as a personal affront on Mao. The Conference also marked the first time since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949 where disagreement over the direction of policy spilled into open conflict between party leaders. Mao's response to Peng was also seen as an indication that for the first time, his personal authority trumped the principles of collective leadership of the Central Committee and the Politburo.
The original objective of the conference was to review the events in China during 1958 and solve some practical issues brought forth by those events. Mao Zedong also intended to use the conference to contain the "leftist tendency" (zuoqing) elements in the Great Leap Forward.
On July 14, Peng Dehuai, then PRC's defense minister, wrote a private letter to Mao criticizing some elements of the Great Leap Forward. In the letter, he cautiously framed his words and did not deny the "great achievement" of Mao, but meanwhile showed his disapproval for elements like the "winds of exaggeration" (i.e., over-reporting of grain production), the communal dining and also the establishment of commune militia which he felt would undermine the strength of the People's Liberation Army. He expressed his "confusion" towards "rather large losses" and "epidemic of bragging" in the Great Leap Forward.
For this reason, Mao extended the conference for more than ten days.
On July 23, Mao showed Peng's letter to his comrades and asked them to express their views on the issue. However, not long afterwards, Mao bitterly criticised Peng as being part of a group wavering in the face of difficulties and who were "only 30 kilometres away from the rightists". He was subsequently dismissed, arrested and replaced by Lin Biao. Although the criticism of Peng Dehuai resulted in a victory for Mao Zedong, it also led the leadership to conclude that he had been treated unfairly and that the party's norms had been violated.
The Lushan Conference marked a key point of departure in Mao's rule. Criticism of party actions and policies were now equated with criticism of Mao.
Mao's speech at Lushan was incredibly passionate and bellicose. He defended himself by saying that he, like all of the great writers, Confucius, Karl Marx, and Lenin had made mistakes and that focusing on them would not help the situation. Moreover, he insisted that not one commune had collapsed yet.
His personal victory over Peng Dehuai at the Lushan Conference gave Mao confidence and led him to proceed with the Cultural Revolution. More than 3 million officials within the party were indicted and "class struggle" was brought in for the first time into the upper echelon of the Party apparatus.