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Great Famine

"In 1989 hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Chinese died in the June Fourth massacre in Beijing, and within hours hundreds of millions of people around the world had seen images of it on their television screens. In the late 1950s, also in Communist China, roughly the inverse happened: thirty million or more died while the world, then and now, has hardly noticed." - Perry Link, University of California, Riverside.

Between the spring of 1959 and the end of 1961 some 30 million Chinese starved to death and about the same number of births were lost or postponed. The famine had overwhelmingly ideological causes, rating alongside the two world wars as a prime example of what Richard Rhodes labelled public manmade death, perhaps the most overlooked cause of 20th century mortality.

As an essentially social catastrophe, the famine showed clear marks of omission, commission, and provision. These three attributes recure in all modern manmade famines. The greatest omission was the failure of China's rulers to acknowledge the famine and promptly to secure foreign food aid. Study of famines shows how easily they can be ended (or prevented) once the government decides to act-but the Chinese government took nearly three years to act. Taking away all means of private food production (in some places even cooking utensils), forcing peasants into mismanaged communes, and continuing food exports were the worst acts of commission. Preferential supply of food to cities and to the ruling elite was the deliberate act of selective provision.

Weather only exacerbated the suffering. Official accounts still blame the natural catastrophes for the suffering-but China's own statistics belie this explanation. Undoubtedly, the drought of 1960-1 would have lowered grain supply in the worst affected provinces, but by itself it would have caused only a small fraction of the eventual nationwide death toll. During the 1990s the worst droughts and floods in China's modern history had only a marginal effect on the country's adequate food supply. Only a return to more rational economic policies after 1961, including imports of grain, ended the famine.

The conventional wisdom conveys China's Great Leap Forward famine as a man-made disaster where misguided economic policies precipitated widespread famine and world record-breaking population losses. Barbara Sands reconstructed regional population and grain availability data to find more complex patterns than those suggested by classic famine. While allowing for considerable excess mortality in this period, she suggested that portions of it were due to the influenza pandemic of 1957, an alternative explanation of the Great Leap Forward famine.

One of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century, the famine is poorly understood, and in China is still euphemistically referred to as "the three years of natural disaster." Official accounts still blame the natural catastrophes for the suffering. Undoubtedly, the drought of 1960-1 would have lowered grain supply in the worst affected provinces, but by itself it would have caused only a small fraction of the eventual nationwide death toll.

According to John Leighton Stuart, the U.S. Ambassador to China (1946-1949), there were 3 to 7 million people who died of hunger in China on average every year before 1949. The mortality went done dramatically after 1949 due to social stability, education, much improved productivity and newly established medical system [even though it was basic]. In 1949 the Chinese population was 540 million, it reached 600 million by 1953, and 694 million by 1964.

The Great Famine (1959-1961) is one of the many famines in Chinas history. A lot of studies have been done on the abnormal deaths of Chinas population from 1959 to 1961, but no exact number on this matter has been publicized by the Chinese government, and scholars differ widely in their conjectures and estimations. But this does not undermine its significance in Chinas modern history.

In China there are now plenty of sources that prove some 20-50 million people died in starvation during this famine, even the latest history book published from a government agency confessed this fact even though they agreed to a smaller number (about 20 million).

Unlike other tragic famines in the past, the Great Famine of China in the three years at the turning of the 1950s and 1960s was caused by avoidable human mistakes, rather than inevitable natural disasters. Mao Zedong and his collaborators (Liu Shaoqi, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping) set in place a plan to accelerate the industrialization of China by extracting "rural surplus" food production.

Increasingly unrealistic goals were set for agricultural production. When the results predictably did not measure up to these outlandish goals, the people who paid the price were the farmers. Fabricated reports of record grain harvests were issued to demonstrate the superiority of communal farming. These gross exaggerations were then used to justify the expropriation of higher shares of grain for cities and the establishment of wasteful communal mess halls serving free meals.

This era in Chinese history had been much speculated about but never before fully documented because access to Communist Party archives had long been restricted to all but the most trusted historians. A new archive law opened up thousands of central and provincial documents that "fundamentally change the way one can study the Maoist era."

Beginning soon after the implementation of the policies of the Great Leap Forward of 1958-1961, when the drive to collectivize and industrialize undermined the livelihoods of the vast majority of peasant workers, Chinas Great Famine was the worst famine in human history. In addition to claiming more than 45 million lives, it also led to the destruction of agriculture, industry, trade, and every aspect of human life, leaving large parts of the Chinese countryside scarred forever by human-created environmental disasters.

Thousands of Rightists were persecuted from 1959 to 1963. At that time, many rightists were removed from their posts and sent to the countryside for re-education. And among them, during the Great Famine, many did not survive. They died from hunger and diseases. In the years between 1961 and 1964, 20 million state workers and 17 million urban high school students were sent to the countryside for re-education by participating in agricultural production.

The large ruralurban divide became a major feature of Chinas inequality, and the policies eventually led to the Great Famine. During the famine, however, most urban residents were protected from starvation at the expense of possibly 30 million deaths in the rural areas. [Lin, Justin Yifu and Dennis T.Yang, Food Availability, Entitlement and the Chinese Famine of 195961, Economic Journal 110 (2000):13658.]

There has been a great deal of scholarship in the West on the Great Famine, where it considreed as part of the Great Leap Forward, the Great Famine in the early 1960s was one of the post effects of the Great Leap Forward. Several excellent books, such as Jasper Becker's Hungry Ghosts (1997), Frank Dikters Maos Great Famine (2010), and Ralph Thaxton's Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China (2008), have explored the catastrophe from many angles.

Frank DiKotter takes pains to rebut the common impression that the famine of the Great Leap Forward was the inadvertant consequence of a terribly mistaken policy exacerbated by bad weather. DiKotter shows very well that the famine and its accompanying events go well beyond simple criminal negligence. The Great Leap Forward was not just an ill-advised attempt at forced industrialization. DiKotter demonstrates a number of other important aspects including incredibly stupid and destructive efforts to completely re-engineer the hydrology of China and Chinese agriculture, to extend the power of the Party into all aspects of Chinese life, and to make China the leading nation of the Communist bloc. DiKotter favors a high estimate of the death toll during 4 years,between 1958-1962, some 45 million people.

In Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962, Yang Jisheng, a journalist with privileged access to official and unofficial sources, spent twenty years piecing together the events that led to mass nationwide starvation, including the death of his own father. Finding no natural causes, Yang attributes responsibility for the deaths to China's totalitarian system and the refusal of officials at every level to value human life over ideology and self-interest.

Zhou Xun selected, translated, and annotated 121 internal reports from local officials to their bosses. They form a frank, grisly, and specific portrait of hysteria defeating common sense. Zhou's University of Hong Kong colleague, Frank Diktter, extricated some of these documents from newly opened (and now again closed) archives in local headquarters across China for his Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe 19581962, but Zhou's book stands on its own.

Population plummeted from 1959 to 1961 year by year. In 1962, population resumed growing. During the Great Famine of China from 1959 to 1961, 16 million babies werent given birth to, and 36 million died from hunger. The only problem with this calculation is the accuracy of the population statistics from the government. The 36 million accounted for 5.5% of the total population at that time which was 660 million.

On the afternoon of March 23, 2010, in Room 710 of School of Economics, Fudan University, Professor CAO Shuji (Department of History of Shanghai JiaoTong University) made a lecture entitled Great Famine: Population of China 1959-1961. Professor Cao regressed the abnormal deaths of various regions across the country on local per-capital food production and found that the correlation between the two was very weak. Thus he made a conclusion that the popular disaster-related explanation on great famine might be unreliable.

The greatest omission was the failure of China's rulers to acknowledge the famine and promptly to secure foreign food aid. Study of famines shows how easily they can be ended (or prevented) once the government decides to actbut the Chinese government took nearly three years to act. Taking away all means of private food production (in some places even cooking utensils), forcing peasants into mismanaged communes, and continuing food exports were the worst acts of commission. Preferential supply of food to cities and to the ruling elite was the deliberate act of selective provision.

The Great Famine encouraged the world to analyse China's food security, as outlined in Lester Brown's 1995 book Who Will Feed China?.



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