The Four Pests campaign (Chinese: 除四害; pinyin: Chú Sì Hài), was one of the first actions taken in the Great Leap Forward in China from 1958 to 1962. Authorities targeted four pests for elimination: rats, flies, mosquitoes, and sparrows. The extermination of sparrows – also known as the smash sparrows campaign (Chinese: 打麻雀运动; pinyin: dǎ máquè yùndòng) or the eliminate sparrows campaign (Chinese: 消灭麻雀运动; pinyin: xiāomiè máquè yùndòng) – resulted in severe ecological imbalance, being one of the causes of the Great Chinese Famine of 1959–1961. In 1960 the campaign against sparrows ended and bed bugs became an official target.
The "Four Pests" campaign was introduced in 1958 as a hygiene campaign aimed to eradicate the pests responsible for the transmission of pestilence and disease:
- the mosquitos responsible for malaria
- the rodents that spread the plague
- the pervasive airborne flies
- the sparrows—specifically the Eurasian tree sparrow—which ate grain, seed, and fruit
Sparrows were suspected of consuming approximately 2 kg (4 pounds) of grain per sparrow per year. Sparrow nests were destroyed, eggs were broken, and chicks were killed. Millions of people organized into groups, and hit noisy pots and pans to prevent sparrows from resting in their nests, with the goal of causing them to drop dead from exhaustion. In addition to these tactics, citizens also simply shot the birds down from the sky. The campaign depleted the sparrow population, pushing it to near extinction within China.
Some sparrows found a refuge in the extraterritorial premises of various diplomatic missions in China. The personnel of the Polish embassy in Beijing denied the Chinese request of entering the premises of the embassy to scare away the sparrows who were hiding there and as a result the embassy was surrounded by people with drums. After two days of constant drumming, the Poles had to use shovels to clear the embassy of dead sparrows.
By April 1960, Chinese communist leaders changed their opinion in part due to the influence of ornithologist Tso-hsin Cheng who pointed out that sparrows ate a large number of insects, as well as grains. While the campaign was meant to increase yields, concurrent droughts and floods as well as the lacking sparrow population decreased rice yields. In the same month, Mao Zedong ordered the campaign against sparrows to end. Sparrows were replaced with bed bugs, as the extermination of sparrows had upset the ecological balance, which subsequently resulted in surging locust and insect populations that destroyed crops due to a lack of a natural predator.
With no sparrows to eat them, locust populations ballooned, swarming the country and compounding the ecological problems already caused by the Great Leap Forward, including widespread deforestation and misuse of poisons and pesticides. Ecological imbalance is credited with exacerbating the Great Chinese Famine.
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- China’s Smash Sparrows Campaign And Nature’s Revenge!
- PBS series The People's Century – 1949: The Great Leap
- China follows Mao with mass cull (BBC)
- Catastrophic Miscaculations