|Great Chinese Famine|
|Country||People's Republic of China|
|Total deaths||15–55 million|
|Observations||Considered China's most devastating catastrophe. Result of the Great Leap Forward, people's commune and other policies.|
|Consequences||Termination of the Great Leap Forward campaign|
The Great Chinese Famine (Chinese: 三年大饥荒, "three years of great famine") was a period in the history of the People's Republic of China (PRC) which was characterized by widespread famine between the years 1959 and 1961. 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.
The major contributing factors in the famine were the policies of the Great Leap Forward (1958 to 1962) and people's communes, in addition to some natural disasters such as droughts which took place during the period. During the Seven Thousand Cadres Conference in early 1962, Liu Shaoqi, the second Chairman of the PRC, formally attributed the famine 30% 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 Communist Party of China (CPC) 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.
- Before June 1981, "Three Years of Natural Disasters" (simplified Chinese: 三年自然灾害; traditional Chinese: 三年自然災害; pinyin: Sānnián zìrán zāihài).
- After June 1981, "Three Years of Difficulty" (simplified Chinese: 三年困难时期; traditional Chinese: 三年困難時期; pinyin: Sānnián kùnnán shíqī).
Extent of the famine
The radically harmful changes in farming organization and policies coincided with adverse weather patterns, including droughts and floods. As a result, 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. According to the China Statistical Yearbook (1984), crop production decreased from 200 million tons in 1958 to 143.5 million tons in 1960.
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 less than the population in 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 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 right.
Unofficial estimates of the death toll vary, but scholars have estimated the number of famine victims to be between 20 and 55 million. It is widely believed that the government seriously under-reported death tolls: Lu Baoguo, a Xinhua reporter based in Xinyang, told Yang Jisheng of 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 peopled died of malnutrition.
- Li Chengrui (李成瑞), former Minister of the National Bureau of Statistics of China, estimated 22 million deaths (1998). His estimation was based on the estimation (27 million deaths) of Ansley J. Coale, and the estimation (17 million deaths) of 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.
- 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."
- Liao Gailong (廖盖隆), former Vice Director of the History Research Unit of the Communist Party of China (CPC), 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 CPC 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 Communist Party of China, estimated that 55 million people died due to the famine. His conclusion was based on two-decade archival research.
- Utsa Patnaik, an Indian Marxist economist, wrote "[t]he figure of 30 million has passed into popular folklore ... The fact that 19 million of them never existed because they were never born in the first place is not conveyed by the formulation." She criticized the equating of China's "missing millions" with famine deaths, rather than people who were never born due to declining birth rates. Also she claimed that "Because the internal political developments in China after 1978 were in the direction of attacking Maoist egalitarianism and the commune system, no repudiation from Chinese sources of the US estimates are to be seen". Patnaik concluded that the figures were ideologically derived in attempts to discredit communism, while similar excessive deaths in 1990s Russia, following the collapse of the USSR, were routinely ignored.
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 "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 changes in regulations imposed by the government, 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 which prohibited farm ownership. Failure to abide by the policies led to punishment. The social pressure imposed on the citizens in terms of farming and business, which the government controlled, led to state instability. Owing to the laws passed during the period and the Great Leap Forward during 1958–1962, about 36 million people died of starvation in this period, according to an analysis by journalist Yang Jisheng.
During the Great Leap Forward, farming was organized into people's communes and the cultivation of privately owned 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.
In 2008, Yang Jisheng would summarize the effect of the focus on production targets :
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.
In fact, the topic of the people's commune and the degree in which it influenced the famine holds contention in regards to its overall influence. Each region dealt with the famine differently and timelines of the famine are not uniform across China. The overarching argument is that excessive eating that took place in the mess halls directly led to a worsening of the famine and that if excessive eating did not take place then, "the worst of the Great Leap Famine could still have been avoided in mid-1959". However, dire hunger did not set into places like Da Fo village until 1960, and the public dining hall participation rate was found to be meaningless in terms of causation 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 implemented 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
Additionally, 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. This system failed and resulted in an explosion of the vermin population, especially crop-eating insects, which consequently had no predators.
Illusion of superabundance
Beginning in 1957, the Communist Party of China began to report excessive production of grains because of pressure from above to succeed. However, the actual production of grains throughout China was decreasing from 1957–1961. For examples,
- In Sichuan Province, even though the collected grain was decreasing from 1958–1961, 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 amount of grains. On the contrary, the crop yields were in fact 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 being the major cause of much of the starvation throughout China. Yang Dali states 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 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.
More policies from the central government
Economists Xin Meng, Nancy Qian and Pierre Yared showed that, much like Nobel laureate Amartya Sen's earlier claims, 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 was surprisingly more deaths in places that produced more food per capita and argue 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 that were implemented, particularly the Three Red Banners and the Socialist Education Movement (SEM), proved to be ideologically detrimental to the aggravating famine. The Three Red Banners of the CCP "sparked the fanaticism of 1958" and 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" directly links to the pressures officials felt when reporting 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 thoughts 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 agriculture and higher forms of government. As the Great Leap Forward progressed, many provincial leaders began to extend their reach by working closely with Mao and higher Party leaders; which, in turn resulted in these provincial leaders abusing power that they did not actually have. This abuse of power caused passivity on the local level. Local landlords began "denouncing any opposition as 'conservative rightism'", which is defined broadly as anything anti-communist. With the ongoing conspiratorial theories revolving around peasants, it was seen that saving extra grain for a family to eat, the belief that the Great Leap Forward should not be implemented, or merely not working hard enough could all be seen as forms of 'conservative rightism'. This hatred led to peasants becoming unable to openly speak on collectivization and state grain purchase. By enforcing such passivity at a local level while there already was passivity at an 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 hold relationships with higher officials rather than keep close 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 which led Mao to label Zhang "a member of the 'Peng Dehuai anti-Party military clique'", resulting in him being purged from the local party. Zeng was unable to report of the famine when it became an emergency situation as this would prove his hypocrisy and caused him to become 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 as well. By being able to create an environment in which the Great Leap Forward did not become fully implemented, the Jiangxi government "did their best to minimize damage". These findings concluded that much of the severity of the famine came down to provincial leaders and their responsibility for their regions.
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 July 27, 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 July 27, 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 labors 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, for instances, which contributed to the famine.
In 1959 and 1960, at least some degree of drought and other bad weather affected 55% of the cultivated land in China, while an estimated 60% of agricultural land in northern China received no rain at all. In 1961, the weather improved slightly.
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, according to 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 that "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 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", and 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 pulled out their bedding and coats into the fields, added seeds and water, and after they sprouted, buried the materials under the soil once the seedlings were high enough.:122
In a similar manner to 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.Aforementioned propaganda photo.
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 reasons for the famine were 30% natural disaster and 70% human error. In January and February 1962, the "7000 Cadres Conference (七千人大会)" was called and Liu formally announced his conclusion, while the Great Leap Forward was declared "over" by the Communist Party.
The failure of the Great Leap Forward as well as the famine led Mao Zedong to withdraw from active decision making within the Communist Party and the government, and turn various future responsibilities over to Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. However, the disagreement between Mao and Liu (and Deng) gradually increased; Mao launched the Socialist Education Movement in 1963 and the Cultural Revolution in 1966, during which Liu was accused of attributing only 30 percent to natural calamities and was accused of being a traitor and an enemy agent. Liu was persecuted to death 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 still 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, however, the Communist Party of China (CPC) 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.
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." On the other hand, Sen points out that the numbers of "excess mortality", as some demographers call it- death due to Poor nutrition and inadequate medical care, in India often surpass what they were in China during 1958–1961. Sen estimated 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 ... India seems to manage to fill its cupboard with more skeletons every eight years than China put there in its years of shame."
- Famines in China
- Northern Chinese Famine of 1876–79
- Chinese famine of 1928–30
- Chinese famine of 1942–43
- Four Pests Campaign
- Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine
- Mao's Great Famine
- 70,000 Character Petition
- Mass killings under communist regimes
- 1975 Banqiao Dam failure
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