Lessons from China's Great Famine

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Author: Mao Yushi
Date: Fall 2014
From: The Cato Journal(Vol. 34, Issue 3)
Publisher: Cato Institute
Document Type: Report
Length: 2,666 words

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While the Great Famine (1959-61) is one of many famines throughout China's history, this does not undermine its significance in China's modern history. Unlike other tragic famines in the past, the Great Famine was caused by avoidable human mistakes--not by inevitable natural disasters.

There has been a great deal of scholarship in the West on the Great Famine, where it is known as the "Great Leap Forward." Several excellent books, such as Jasper Becker's Hungry Ghosts (1997), Frank Dikotter's Mao's Great Famine (2010), and Ralph Thaxton's Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China (2008), have explored the catastrophe from many angles, including the political decisions made by Beijing and local governments. Yet there had been comparatively little work coming from China. Now, thanks to the work of Chinese reporters, scholars, and especially Yang Jisheng's in-depth work Tombstone (2012), we have a more complete picture of this dark time in China's recent past.

Personal Reflections

I was in my early 30s when the Great Famine took place. Labeled as a "lightest," I was persecuted along with thousands of others. At that time, many rightists were removed from their posts and sent to the countryside for re-education. During the Great Famine, many did not survive as they succumbed to hunger and disease. I was reduced to the lowest human form by the end of the Great Famine, constantly stalked by the nightmare that I could never shake: hunger. As a survivor with firsthand experience, I know that scores died during the Great Famine. As an economist and a concerned citizen, I felt an obligation to find out exactly how many people died during this catastrophe.

Calculating the True Number of Deaths

The causes of the Great Famine may be open to questions and debate, but the number of the deceased during this period must not be overshadowed by the necessity to be attuned to political sensitivities. It is the duty of survivors like me to determine the exact number of the deceased during the famine so that they can be remembered and a lesson for the nation can be learned. (1)

As shown in Figure 1, the vertical axis represents population and the horizontal axis the period from 1950 to 1970. According to the government's statistical yearbook, the population of China grew continuously until the end of 1958. However, between 1959 and 1961, the population plummeted. In 1962, the population resumed its growth. The solid black line represents the actual population during this period in millions. According to the trend line of the previous years, using the method of quadratic regression, the population would have been 711.18 million by 1962, as shown by the dashed line after 1959. (2) Compared with the real population of 658.59 million in 1961, the difference is 52 million individuals. What does 52 million mean in this context? It represents those who would have been born as well as those who would not have experienced abnormal deaths.

Two factors contributed to this loss of 52 million individuals. The...

Source Citation

Source Citation
Yushi, Mao. "Lessons from China's Great Famine." The Cato Journal, vol. 34, no. 3, fall 2014, pp. 483+. Accessed 5 Oct. 2022.

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