Great Chinese Famine
|Great Chinese Famine
|Country||People's Republic of China|
|Total deaths||15 million excess deaths (government statistics)
20 and 43 million (scholarly estimates)
at least 45 million (Dikötter)
|Observations||Considered China's most devastating catastrophe by Frank Dikötter. A part of the Great Leap Forward movement.|
|Relief||Four Pests Campaign (worsened the famine). Increase in food export to other socialist states.|
|Consequences||Termination of the Great Leap Forward movement|
The four Years of Great Chinese Famine (simplified Chinese: 三年大饥荒; traditional Chinese: 三年大饑荒; pinyin: Sānnián dà jīhuāng), referred to by the Communist Party of China as the Three Years of Natural Disasters or Three Years of Difficult Period (simplified Chinese: 三年自然灾害; traditional Chinese: 三年自然災害; pinyin: Sānnián zìrán zāihài or simplified Chinese: 三年困难时期; traditional Chinese: 三年困難時期; pinyin: Sānnián kùnnán shíqī) by the government, was the period in the People's Republic of China between the years 1958 and 1961 characterized by widespread famine. Drought, poor weather, and the policies of the Communist Party of China contributed to the famine, although the relative weights of the contributions are disputed due to the Great Leap Forward.
According to government statistics, there were 15 million excess deaths in this period. Unofficial estimates vary, but scholars have estimated the number of famine victims to be between 20 and 43 million. Historian Frank Dikötter, having been granted special access to Chinese archival materials, estimates that there were at least 45 million premature deaths from 1958 to 1962. Chinese journalist Yang Jisheng concluded there were 36 million deaths due to starvation, while another 40 million others failed to be born, so that “China’s total population loss during the Great Famine then comes to 76 million.” The phrase "Three Bitter Years" is often used by Chinese peasants to describe this period.
The great Chinese famine was caused by social pressure, economic mismanagement, and radical changes in agriculture. Mao Zedong, chairman of the Chinese communist party, introduced drastic changes in farming which prohibited farm ownership. Failure to abide by the policies lead to persecution. The social pressure imposed on the citizens in terms of farming and business, which the government controlled, lead to state instability. Due to the laws passed during the period and Great Leap Forward during 1958-1962, according to government statistics, about 36 million people died in this period. Until the early 1980s, the Chinese government's stance, reflected by the name "Three Years of Natural Disasters", was that the famine was largely a result of a series of natural disasters compounded by several planning errors. Researchers outside China argued that massive institutional and policy changes which accompanied the Great Leap Forward were the key factors in the famine, or at least worsened nature-induced disasters. Since the 1980s there has been greater official Chinese recognition of the importance of policy mistakes in causing the disaster, claiming that the disaster was 30% due to natural causes and 70% by mismanagement.
During the Great Leap Forward, farming was organized into communes and the cultivation of private plots forbidden. Iron and steel production was identified as a key requirement for economic advancement. Millions of peasants were ordered away from agricultural work to join the iron and steel production workforce.
Yang Jisheng would summarize the effect of the focus on production targets in 2008:
In Xinyang, people starved at the doors of the grain warehouses. As they died, they shouted, "Communist Party, Chairman Mao, save us". If the granaries of Henan and Hebei had been opened, no one need have died. As people were dying in large numbers around them, officials did not think to save them. Their only concern was how to fulfill the delivery of grain.
Along with collectivisation, the central Government decreed several changes in agricultural techniques based on the ideas of Soviet pseudoscientist Trofim Lysenko. One of these ideas was close planting, whereby the density of seedlings was at first tripled and then doubled again. The theory was that plants of the same species would not compete with each other. In practice they did, which stunted growth and resulted in lower yields. Another policy was based on the ideas of Lysenko's colleague Teventy Maltsev, who encouraged peasants across China to plow deeply into the soil (up to 1 or 2 meters). They believed the most fertile soil was deep in the earth, allowing extra strong root growth. However, in shallow soil, useless rocks, soil, and sand were driven up instead, burying the topsoil.
These radical changes in farming organization coincided with adverse weather patterns, including droughts and floods. In July 1959, the Yellow River flooded in East China. According to the Disaster Center, the flood directly killed, either through starvation from crop failure or drowning, an estimated 2 million people, while other areas were affected in other ways as well. It could be ranked as one of the deadliest natural disasters of the 20th century.
In 1960, an estimated 60% of agricultural land in northern China received no rain at all. The Encyclopædia Britannica yearbooks from 1958 to 1962 also reported abnormal weather, followed by droughts and floods. This included 760 millimetres (30 in) of rain in Hong Kong across five days in June 1959, part of a pattern that hit all of Southern China.
As a result of these factors, year over year grain production dropped in China. The harvest was down by 15% in 1959. By 1960, it was at 70% of its 1958 level. There was no recovery until 1962, after the Great Leap Forward ended.
According to the work of Nobel prize winning economist and expert on famines Amartya Sen, most famines do not result just from lower food production, but also from an inappropriate or inefficient distribution of the food, often compounded by lack of information and indeed misinformation as to the extent of the problem. In the case of these Chinese famines, the urban population had protected legal rights for certain amounts of grain consumption. Local officials in the countryside competed to over-report the levels of production that their communes had achieved in response to the new economic organisation, and thus local peasants were left with a much reduced residue.
According to the China Statistical Yearbook (1984), crop production decreased from 200 million tons (1958) to 143.5 million tons (1960). Due to lack of food and incentive to marry at that point in time, the population was about 658,590,000 in 1961, about 13,480,000 less than the population of 1959. Birth rate decreased from 2.922% (1958) to 2.086% (1960) and death rate increased from 1.198% (1958) to 2.543% (1960), while the average numbers for 1962–1965 are about 4% and 1%, respectively.
The officially reported death rates show much more dramatic increases in a number of provinces and counties. In Sichuan province, the most populous province in China, for example, the government reported 11 million deaths out of the average population of about 70 million during 1958–1961, one death in every seven people. In Huaibin County, Henan province, the government reported 102 thousand deaths out of a population of 378 thousand in 1960. On the national level, the official statistics imply about 15 million so-called "excess deaths" or "abnormal deaths", most of them resulting from starvation.
Yu Dehong, the secretary of a party official in Xinyang in 1959 and 1960, stated,
I went to one village and saw 100 corpses, then another village and another 100 corpses. No one paid attention to them. People said that dogs were eating the bodies. Not true, I said. The dogs had long ago been eaten by the people.
In the second half of 1959, I took a long-distance bus from Xinyang to Luoshan and Gushi. Out of the window, I saw one corpse after another in the ditches. On the bus, no one dared to mention the dead. In one county, Guangshan, one-third of the people had died. Although there were dead people everywhere, the local leaders enjoyed good meals and fine liquor. ... I had seen people who had told the truth being destroyed. Did I dare to write it?
Some Western analysts, such as Patricia Buckley Ebrey, estimate that about 20-40 million people had died of starvation caused by bad government policy and natural disasters. J. Banister estimates this number is about 23 million. Li Chengrui, a former minister of the National Bureau of Statistics of China, estimated 22 million (1998). His estimation was based on Ansley J. Coale and Jiang Zhenghua's estimation of 17 million. Cao Shuji estimated 32.5 million. The aforementioned Yang Jisheng (2008) estimated the death toll at 36 million.
Hong Kong based historian Frank Dikötter (2010) estimates that, at minimum, 45 million people died from starvation, overwork and state violence during the Great Leap, claiming his findings to be based on access to recently opened local and provincial party archives. However, his approach to the documents, as well has his claim to be the first author to use them, have been questioned by other scholars. Dikötter's study also stresses that state violence exacerbated the death toll. Dikötter claims that least 2.5 million of the victims were beaten or tortured to death. He provides a graphic example of what happened to a family after one member was caught stealing some food:
Liu Desheng, guilty of poaching a sweet potato, was covered in urine ... He, his wife, and his son were also forced into a heap of excrement. Then tongs were used to prise his mouth open after he refused to swallow excrement. He died three weeks later.
There are widespread oral reports, and some official documentation, of cannibalism being practiced in various forms, as a result of the famine. Due to the scale of the famine, the resulting cannibalism has been described as "on a scale unprecedented in the history of the 20th century".
The Great Leap Forward was initiated in 1958, after the First Five Year Plan had been declared successfully completed. One point of the Great Leap was starting to set up People's Communes in the countryside. However, the Party had optimistically over-estimated the country's productivity during the First Five Year Plan. In reality, farming activity had gone down due to the All-Canteen.
After the Famine, then-Chairman of the People's Republic of China Liu Shaoqi concluded that the reason for the calamity was "30% natural disaster, 70% policy". In the later Cultural Revolution, Liu was denounced as a traitor and an enemy agent going against the Three Red Banners.
|1949–1976, The Mao Era|
|1976–1989, Era of Restructuring|
|1989–2002, A Rising Power|
|2002–present, China Today|
|Generations of leadership|
Some argue that the famines in the Republican Era caused a death rate of about five millions/year, the same as in the Great Famine. The famine in northern China in 1920–1921, for example, caused 10 million deaths.
Famine scholar Cormac Ó Gráda noted that even prior to the Great Chinese Famine, famines were "recurrent features of Chinese history during the previous century or so". He noted the "apocalyptic" nature of such famines, including Great North China Famine of 1876–79, which was estimated to have caused between 9.5 and 13 million deaths. Citing Yang Jisheng, Ó Gráda also noted that between 1920 and 1936, 18.36 million people died due to famines caused by crop failures, while the 1942 Henan famine "produced its own catalogue of atrocities".
Former Chinese dissident and political prisoner, Minqi Li, a Professor of Economics at the University of Utah, and a supporter of Maoist policies, has produced data showing that even the peak death rates during the Great Leap Forward were in fact quite typical in pre-Communist China. Li (2008) argues that based on the average death rate over the three years of the Great Leap Forward, there were several million fewer lives lost during this period than would have been the case under normal mortality conditions before 1949.
Nobel Prize winner economist Amartya Sen puts this famine in a global context. His book Development as Freedom argues that lack of democracy is the major culprit: "Indeed, no substantial famine has ever occurred in a democratic country—no matter how poor." He adds that it is "hard to imagine that anything like this could have happened in a country that goes to the polls regularly and that has an independent press. During that terrible calamity the government faced no pressure from newspapers, which were controlled, and none from opposition parties, which were absent." Nevertheless, in his work Hunger and Public Action (co-author Jean Drèze), Sen also noted that "despite the gigantic size of excess mortality in the Chinese famine, the extra mortality in India from regular deprivation in normal times vastly overshadows the former." This view was also reflected by Noam Chomsky in Rogue States: The Rule of Force in World Affairs
- Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62
- Yang Jisheng
- Four Pests Campaign
- Ó Gráda, Famine: A Short History, p.95
- Peng Xizhe (彭希哲), "Demographic Consequences of the Great Leap Forward in China's Provinces," Population and Development Review 13, no. 4 (1987), 639-70.
For a summary of other estimates, please refer to Necrometrics 
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- Yang Jisheng. Tombstone (Mu Bei - Zhong Guo Liu Shi Nian Dai Da Ji Huang Ji Shi). Cosmos Books (Tian Di Tu Shu), Hong Kong 2008.
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