The Great Chinese Famine (Chinese: 三年大饥荒, "three years of great famine") was a period between 1959 and 1961 in the history of the People's Republic of China (PRC) characterized by widespread famine. Some scholars have also included the years 1958 or 1962. The Great Chinese Famine is widely regarded as the deadliest famine and one of the greatest man-made disasters in human history, with an estimated death toll due to starvation that ranges in the tens of millions (15 to 55 million).[note 1]
The major contributing factors in the famine were the policies of the Great Leap Forward (1958 to 1962) and people's communes, such as inefficient distribution of food due to the planned economy, requiring the use of poor agricultural techniques, the Four Pests Campaign that reduced bird populations (which disrupted the ecosystem), over-reporting of grain production (which was actually decreasing), and ordering millions of farmers to switch to iron and steel production. During the Seven Thousand Cadres Conference in early 1962, Liu Shaoqi, the second Chairman of the PRC, formally attributed 30% of the famine to natural disasters and 70% to man-made errors ("三分天灾, 七分人祸"). After the launch of Reforms and Opening Up, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officially stated in June 1981 that the famine was mainly due to the mistakes of the Great Leap Forward as well as the Anti-Rightist Campaign, in addition to some natural disasters and the Sino-Soviet split.
Besides the name "Three Years of Great Famine" (simplified Chinese: 三年大饥荒; traditional Chinese: 三年大饑荒; pinyin: Sānnián dà jīhuāng), the famine has been known by many names.
The government of the People's Republic of China called it:
Extent of the famine
Policy changes affecting how farming was organized, with devastating effects, coincided with droughts and floods. As a result, year-over-year grain production fell dramatically in China. The harvest was down by 15% in 1959 compared to 1958, and by 1960, it was at 70% of its 1958 level. Specifically, according to China's governmental data, crop production decreased from 200 million tons (or 400 billion jin) in 1958 to 170 million tons (or 340 billion jin) in 1959, and to 143.5 million tons (or 287 billion jin) in 1960.
Birth and death rate in China
Due to the lack of food and incentive to marry at that time, according to China's official statistics, China's population in 1961 was about 658,590,000, some 14,580,000 lower than in 1959. The birth rate decreased from 2.922% (1958) to 2.086% (1960) and the 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 mortality in the birth and death rates both peaked in 1961 and began recovering rapidly after that, as shown on the chart of census data displayed on the left. Some outlier estimates include 11 million by Utsa Patnaik, an Indian Marxist economist,[note 2] as well as 3.66 million by Sun Jingxian (孙经先), a Chinese mathematician. It is widely believed that the government seriously under-reported death tolls: Lu Baoguo, a Xinhua reporter based in Xinyang, explained to Yang Jisheng why he never reported on his experience:
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?
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.
- A research team of the Chinese Academy of Sciences concluded in 1989 that at least 15 million people died of malnutrition.
- Li Chengrui (李成瑞), former Minister of the National Bureau of Statistics of China, estimated 22 million deaths (1998). His estimate was based on the (27 million deaths) estimated by Ansley J. Coale, and the (17 million deaths) estimated by Jiang Zhenghua (蒋正华), former Vice Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress.
- Judith Banister, Director of Global Demographics at the Conference Board, estimated 30 million excess deaths from 1958-1961.
- Jasper Becker, a British scholar, showed in his book Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine that most estimates of the famine death toll range from 30-60 million.
- Cao Shuji (曹树基), Distinguished Professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, estimated 32.5 million.
- Yang Jisheng, senior journalist from Xinhua News Agency, 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."
- Mao Yushi, a Chinese economist and winner of the 2012 "Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty", put the death toll at 36 million
- Liao Gailong (廖盖隆), former Vice Director of the History Research Unit of the CCP, reported 40 million "unnatural" deaths due to the famine.
- Chen Yizi (陈一谘), a former senior Chinese official and a top advisor to former CCP General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, concluded that 43 million people died due to the famine.
- Frank Dikötter, Chair Professor of Humanities at the University of Hong Kong and the author of Mao's Great Famine, estimated that at least 45 million people died from starvation, overwork and state violence during the Great Leap Forward, claiming his findings to be based on access to recently opened local and provincial party archives. His study also stressed that state violence exacerbated the death toll. Dikötter claimed that at least 2.5 million of the victims were beaten or tortured to death. His approach to the documents, as well as his claim to be the first author to use them, however, have been questioned by some other scholars. Dikötter 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.
- Yu Xiguang (余习广), an independent Chinese historian and a former instructor at the Central Party School of the Chinese Communist Party, estimated that 55 million people died due to the famine. His conclusion was based on two decades of archival research.
There are widespread oral reports, and some official documentation, of human cannibalism being practiced in various forms as a result of the famine.:352[a] Due to the scale of the famine, the resulting cannibalism has been described as being "on a scale unprecedented in the history of the 20th century".
Causes of the famine
The Great Chinese Famine was caused by a combination of radical agricultural policies, social pressure, economic mismanagement, and natural disasters such as droughts and floods in farming regions.
Great Leap Forward
Mao Zedong, Chair of the Chinese Communist Party, introduced drastic changes in farming policy prohibiting farm ownership. Failure to abide by the policies led to punishment.
The public dining hall (canteen) of a people's commune
. The slogan on the wall reads "Eat Free, Work Hard".
During the Great Leap Forward, farming was organized into people's communes and the cultivation of privately owned plots was forbidden. The agricultural economy was centrally planned, and regional Party leaders were given production quotas for the communes under their control. Their output was then appropriated by the state and distributed at its discretion.
In 2008, Yang Jisheng would summarize the effect of the production targets as an inability for supply to be redirected to where it was most demanded:
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.
The degree to which people's communes helped bring about the famine is controversial. Each region dealt with the famine differently, and timelines of the famine are not uniform across China. One argument is that excessive eating took place in the mess halls, and that this directly led to a worsening of the famine. If excessive eating had not taken place, one scholar argued, "the worst of the Great Leap Famine could still have been avoided in mid-1959". However, dire hunger did not set in to places like Da Fo village until 1960, and the public dining hall participation rate was found not to be a meaningful cause of famine in Anhui and Jiangxi. In Da Fo village, "food output did not decline in reality, but there was an astonishing loss of food availability associated with Maoist state appropriation".
Along with collectivization, the central government decreed several changes in agricultural techniques that would be based on the ideas of later-discredited Russian agronomist 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 natural cycles they did fully compete, which actually stunted growth and resulted in lower yields.
Another policy known as "deep plowing" was based on the ideas of Lysenko's colleague Terentiy Maltsev, who encouraged peasants across China to eschew normal plowing depths of 15–20 centimeters and instead plow deeply into the soil (1 to 2 chi or 33 to 66 cm). The deep plowing theory stated that the most fertile soil was deep in the earth, and plowing unusually deeply would allow extra-strong root growth. However, in shallow soil, useless rocks, soil, and sand were driven up instead, burying the fertile topsoil and severely stunting seedling growth.
Four Pests Campaign
In the Four Pests Campaign, citizens were called upon to destroy sparrows and other wild birds that ate crop seeds, in order to protect fields. Pest birds were shot down or scared away from landing until dropping in exhaustion. The mass eradication of birds resulted in an explosion of the vermin population, especially crop-eating insects, which had no predators without the birds.
Illusion of superabundance
Beginning in 1957, the Chinese Communist Party began to report excessive production of grain because of pressure from superiors. However, the actual production of grain throughout China was decreasing from 1957 to 1961. For example:
- In Sichuan Province, even though the collected grain was decreasing from 1958 to 1961, the numbers reported to the central government kept increasing.
- In Gansu, the grain yield declined by 4,273,000 tonnes from 1957 to 1961.
This series of events resulted in an "illusion of superabundance" (浮夸风), and the Party believed that they had an excess of grain. On the contrary, the crop yields were lower than average. For instance, Beijing believed that "in 1960 state granaries would have 50 billion jin of grain", when they actually contained 12.7 billion jin. The effects of the illusion of superabundance were significant, leaving some historians to argue that it was the major cause of much of the starvation throughout China. Yang Dali argued that there were three main consequences from the illusion of superabundance:
First, it led to planners to shift lands from grain to economic crops, such as cotton, sugarcane, and beets, and divert huge numbers of agricultural laborers into industrial sectors, fueling state demand for procured grain from the countryside. Second, it prompted the Chinese leadership, especially Zhou Enlai, to speed up grain exports to secure more foreign currency to purchase capital goods needed for industrialization. Finally, the illusion of superabundance made the adoption of the commune mess halls seem rational at the time. All these changes, of course, contributed to the rapid exhaustion of grain supplies.
Iron and steel production
Iron and steel production was identified as a key requirement for economic advancement, and millions of peasants were ordered away from agricultural work to join the iron and steel production workforce. Much of the iron produced by the peasant population ended up being too weak to be used commercially.
More policies from the central government
Economists Xin Meng, Nancy Qian and Pierre Yared showed that, much as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen had earlier claimed, aggregate production was sufficient for avoiding famine and that the famine was caused by over-procurement and poor distribution within the country. They show that unlike most other famines, there were surprisingly more deaths in places that produced more food per capita, explaining that the inflexibility in the centrally planned food procurement system explains at least half of the famine mortality. Economic historians James Kung and Shuo Chen show that there was more over-procurement in places where politicians faced more competition.
In addition, policies from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the central government, particularly the Three Red Banners and the Socialist Education Movement (SEM), proved to be ideologically detrimental to the worsening famine. The Three Red Banners of the CCP "sparked the fanaticism of 1958". The implementation of the Mass line, one of the three banners which told people to "go all out, aim high, and build socialism with greater, better, and more economical results", is cited in connection to the pressures officials felt to report a superabundance of grain. The SEM, established in 1957, also led to the severity of the famine in various ways, including causing the "illusion of superabundance" (浮夸风). Once the exaggerations of crop yields from the Mass Line were reported, "no one dared to 'dash cold water'" on further reports. The SEM also led to the establishment of conspiracy theories in which the peasants were believed to be pretending to be hungry in order to sabotage the state grain purchase.
Power relations in local governments
Local governments had just as much, if not more, influence on the famine than did higher rungs of government. As the Great Leap Forward progressed, many provincial leaders began aligning themselves with Mao and higher Party leaders. Local leaders were forced to choose between doing what was best for their community and guarding their reputation politically. Landlords began "denouncing any opposition as 'conservative rightism'", which is defined broadly as anything anti-communist. In an environment of conspiracy theories directed against peasants, saving extra grain for a family to eat, espousing the belief that the Great Leap Forward should not be implemented, or merely not working hard enough were all seen as forms of "conservative rightism". Peasants became unable to speak openly on collectivization and state grain purchase. With a culture of fear and recrimination at both a local and official level, speaking and acting against the famine became a seemingly impossible task.
The influence of local government in the famine can be seen in the comparison between the provinces of Anhui and Jiangxi. Anhui, having a radical pro-Mao government, was led by Zeng Xisheng who was "dictatorial", with ties to Mao. Zeng firmly believed in the Great Leap Forward and tried to build relationships with higher officials rather than maintain local ties. Zeng proposed agricultural projects without consulting colleagues, which caused Anhui's agriculture to fail terribly. Zhang Kaifan, a party secretary and deputy-governor of the province, heard rumours of a famine breaking out in Anhui and disagreed with many of Zeng's policies. Zeng reported Zhang to Mao for such speculations. As a result, Mao labeled Zhang "a member of the 'Peng Dehuai anti-Party military clique'" and he was purged from the local party. Zeng was unable to report on the famine when it became an emergency situation, as this would prove his hypocrisy. For this he was described as a "blatant political radical who almost single-handedly damaged Anhui".
Jiangxi encountered a situation almost opposite to that of Anhui. The leaders of Jiangxi publicly opposed some of the Great Leap programs, quietly made themselves unavailable, and even appeared to take a passive attitude towards the Maoist economy. As the leaders worked collaboratively among themselves, they also worked with the local population. By creating an environment in which the Great Leap Forward did not become fully implemented, the Jiangxi government "did their best to minimize damage". From these findings, scholars Manning and Wemheuer concluded that much of the severity of the famine was due to provincial leaders and their responsibility for their regions.
Premier Zhou Enlai
(center front) visited Luokou Yellow River Bridge during the 1958 Yellow River flood.
In 1958, there was a notable regional flood of the Yellow River which affected part of Henan Province and Shandong Province. It was reported as the most severe flood of the Yellow River since 1933. In July 1958, the Yellow River flood affected 741,000 people in 1708 villages and inundated over 3.04 million mu (over half a million acres) of cultivated fields. The largest torrent of the flood was smoothly directed into the Bohai Sea on 27 July, and the government declared a "victory over the flood" after sending a rescue team of over 2 million people. The spokesperson of the Flood Prevention Center of Chinese government stated on 27 July 1958, that:
This year we defeated the large flood without division of torrents or breaks on dams, which secures the big harvest of the crops. This is yet another miracle created by the Chinese people.
But the government was encouraged to report success and hide failures. Because the 2 million farm laborers from the two provinces were ordered away from the fields to serve as a rescue team and were repairing the banks of the river instead of tending to their fields, "crops are neglected and much of the harvest is left to rot in the fields". On the other hand, historian Frank Dikötter has argued that most floods during the famine were not due to unusual weather, but to massive, poorly planned and poorly executed irrigation works which were part of the Great Leap Forward. At this time, encouraged by Mao Zedong, people in China were building a large number of dams and thousands of kilometers of new irrigation canals in an attempt to move water from wet areas to areas that were experiencing drought. Some of the works, such as the Red Flag Canal, made positive contributions to irrigation, but researchers have pointed out that the massive hydraulic construction project led to many deaths due to starvation, epidemics, and drowning, which contributed to the famine.
However, there have been disagreements on the significance of the drought and floods in causing the Great Famine. According to published data from Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences (中国气象科学研究院), the drought in 1960 was not uncommon and its severity was only considered "mild" compared to that in other years—it was less serious than those in 1955, 1963, 1965–1967, and so on. Moreover, Yang Jisheng, who was a senior journalist from Xinhua News Agency, Xue Muqiao, then head of the National Statistics Bureau of China, said in 1958, "We give whatever figures the upper-level wants" to overstate natural disasters and relieve official responsibility for deaths due to starvation. Yang claimed that he investigated other sources including a non-government archive of meteorological data from 350 weather stations across China, and the droughts, floods, and temperatures during 1958–1961 were within the typical patterns for China. Western scholars have also pointed out that:
Many foreign observers felt that these reports of weather-related crop failures were designed to cover up political factors that had led to poor agricultural performance. They also suspected that local officials tended to exaggerate such reports to obtain more state assistance or tax relief. Clearly, the weather contributed to the appalling drop in output, but it is impossible to assess to what extent.
Local party leaders, for their part, conspired to cover up shortfalls and reassign blame in order to protect their own lives and positions. Mao was kept unaware of some of the starvation of villagers in the rural areas who were suffering, as the birth rate began to plummet and deaths increased in 1958 and 1959.
In visits to Henan province in 1958, Mao observed what local officials claimed was increases in crop yield of one thousand to three thousand percent achieved, supposedly, in massive 24-hour pushes organized by the officials which they called "sputnik launches". But the numbers were faked, and so were the fields that Mao observed, which had been carefully prepared in advance of Mao's visit by local officials, who removed shoots of grain from various fields and carefully transplanted them into a field prepared especially for Mao, which appeared to be a bumper crop.:122
The local officials became trapped by these sham demonstrations to Mao, and exhorted the peasants to reach unattainable goals, by "deep ploughing and close planting", among other techniques. This ended up making things much worse; the crop failed completely, leaving barren fields. No one was in a position to challenge Mao's ideas as incorrect, so peasants went to extreme lengths to keep up the charade; some grew seedlings in their bedding and coats and, after the seedlings quickly sprouted, "planted" them in fields—the bedding made the plants look high and healthy.:122
Like in the massive Soviet-created famine in Ukraine (the Holodomor), doctors were prohibited from listing "starvation" as a cause of death on death certificates. This kind of deception was far from uncommon; a famous propaganda picture from the famine shows Chinese children from Shandong province ostensibly standing atop a field of wheat, so densely grown that it could apparently support their weight. In reality, they were standing on a bench concealed beneath the plants, and the "field" was again entirely composed of individually transplanted stalks.
In April and May 1961, Liu Shaoqi, then President of the People's Republic of China, concluded after 44 days of field research in villages of Hunan that the causes of the famine were 30% natural disaster and 70% human error (三分天灾, 七分人祸).
In January and February 1962, the "7000 Cadres Conference" took place in Beijing, which was attended by more than 7,000 communist party officials nationwide. During the conference, Liu formally announced his conclusion on the causes of the great famine, while the Great Leap Forward was declared "over" by the Chinese Communist Party. The policies of Mao Zedong were criticized.
The failure of the Great Leap Forward as well as the famine forced Mao Zedong to withdraw from active decision-making within the communist party and the central government, and turn various future responsibilities over to Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. A series of economic reforms were carried out by Liu and Deng and others, including policies such as sanzi yibao (三自一包) which allowed free market and household responsibility for agricultural production.
However, the disagreement between Mao and Liu (and Deng) grew larger and larger. In 1963, Mao launched the Socialist Education Movement and in 1966, he launched the Cultural Revolution, during which Liu was accused of being a traitor and enemy agent for attributing only 30% to natural calamities. Liu was beaten and denied medicine for diabetes and pneumonia; he died in 1969. On the other hand, Deng was accused of being a "capitalist roader" during the Cultural Revolution and was purged twice.
Reforms and reflections
In December 1978, Deng Xiaoping became the new Paramount Leader of China and launched the historic Reforms and Opening Up program which fundamentally changed the agricultural and industrial system in China. 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. During the "Boluan Fanzheng" period in June 1981, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officially changed the name to "Three Years of Difficulty", and stated that the famine was mainly due to the mistakes of the Great Leap Forward as well as the Anti-Rightist Campaign, in addition to some natural disasters and the Sino-Soviet split. Academic studies on the Great Chinese Famine also became more active in mainland China after 1980, when the government started to release some demographic data to the public. A number of high-ranking Chinese officials had expressed their views on the famine:
- Zhao Ziyang, former General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, once said that "our Party never admitted mistakes. If things got really bad, we just found some scapegoats and blamed them, like Lin Biao and the Gang of Four. If scapegoats were hard to find, we simply blamed natural disasters, such as for the great famine in the late 1950s and early 1960s when tens of millions of people died, which was simply due to political errors of the Party."
- Bo Yibo, one of the Eight Elders and former Vice Premier of the People's Republic of China, once said, "During the three difficult years, people across the country went into malnutrition due to lack of food, and edema was prevalent, resulting in an increasing number of deaths due to starvation among many rural areas. It is estimated that in 1960 alone, more than 10 million people died. With such thing happening during a time of peace, we as members of the Communist Party feel truly guilty in front of the people, and we must never forget this heavy lesson! "
- Wan Li, former President of the National People's Congress of China, stated that "during the three difficult years after the People's Commune movement, people everywhere had edema and even starved to death. In Anhui alone, according to reports, there were 3-4 million people died 'abnormally' …… We had been ' left ' for too long, and farmers were no longer motivated to work."
- Tian Jiyun, former Vice Premier of China and former Vice President of the National People's Congress of China, stated that "looking back at the Three Years of Difficulty, people everywhere had edema and died of starvation, and tens of millions of people died abnormally, more than the total death toll during the entire Democratic Revolution. What was the reason for that? Liu Shaoqi said it was '30% natural disasters and 70% human error.' But it is now clear that the famine was mainly due to human error, which was the erroneous command, the 'Utopian Socialism', and the 'Left opportunism'."
Researchers outside China have argued that the 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. In particular, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen puts this famine in a global context, arguing 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."  Sen estimated: "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. [...] India seems to manage to fill its cupboard with more skeletons every eight years than China put there in its years of shame."
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