China: Great Famine of 1959 to 1961

5 min read

Chinese villagers welcome the arrival of tractors purchased by a farmers' cooperative in April 1958, during the Great Leap Forward campaign. The disastrous modernization program ended in China's great famine and tens of millions of deaths.

Chinese villagers welcome the arrival of tractors purchased by a farmers’ cooperative in April 1958, during the Great Leap Forward campaign. The disastrous modernization program ended in China’s great famine and tens of millions of deaths.

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).

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:

1 ) 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).

2 ) 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).

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, 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 Jishe why he never reported on his experience.

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.

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:

Chair of the Chinese Communist Party, introduced drastic changes in farming policy prohibiting farm ownership. Failure to abide by the policies led to punishment.

People’s communes:

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.

Tony Simon

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