China – with its large population, primitive agrarian economy and political instability – was no stranger to famine. More than six million Chinese had starved during the upheaval of the warlord period; further famine during the Guomidnang’s rule of the 1930s saw another eight million perish. Chinese agricultural productivity was easily disrupted and susceptible to natural disasters, population changes and military activity. Some of these factors contributed to China’s ‘great famine’ of the 1950s – but the main causes were disastrous government policies and a callous indifference to the suffering of the people. The decade ending 1964 saw starvation claim the lives of many millions of Chinese. The years 1958-63 were particularly severe with an estimated 27 million succumbing to famine and malnutrition.
Frank Dikotter, historian
For years the PRC government explained the famine as the result of natural disaster, though this is only partly true. In mid-1959 the Yellow River (or Huang Ho) flooded, leading to thousands of drownings and ruined crops, then an intermittent series of droughts and floods plagued most of China’s provinces over the next three years. Another contributor was the hare-brained schemes of Trofim Lysenko, a Russian in charge of Soviet biological studies from the 1940s onwards. Much as Marxist parties launched attempts to reinvent social and political structures, Lysenko abandoned existing agricultural knowledge to develop his own theories and methods. Unfortunately much of Lysenko’s science was flawed and the new agricultural techniques he devised did far more harm than good. In the mid-1950s, even after Lysenko had been discredited in Russia, Mao Zedong ordered farming collectives to adopt many of his methods. Farmers were ordered to ‘close-plant’ (sowing millions of seeds of different species together in a small area) and ‘deep-plough’ (digging the ground to much deeper levels, believing this would encourage deep root growth). Both of these experiments failed and entire plantings yielded next to nothing. Farmers were forbidden to use chemical fertilisers and large amounts of land were left fallow, with similar results. Lysenko’s crackpot agronomy exacerbated the problems created by adverse weather.
Natural disasters and flawed agronomy alone would have killed several million, however the policies issued as part of the Great Leap Forward made them exponentially more deadly. Farming collectives continued to transport grain out of their region, even as production was slumping and malnutrition was breaking out. Zealous officials in the commune reported exaggerated production levels in order to impress the government – which in turn demanded grain quotas that left the locals without sufficient food. Even as the famine spread, the government continued to sell and export large amounts of grain (whether this was intentional or due to unawareness of the domestic food shortage is unclear). Little is known about the true impact of this mass starvation because the government, once it became aware of the true extent of the famine, suppressed all information. One state department even produced film propaganda suggesting that peasants were prospering, showing one with fat, healthy livestock and full granaries. The best historical guess is that the great Chinese famine caused the death of at least 30 million people. The death rate doubled in cities and tripled in some rural areas; the lack of food also saw marriage and birth rates plummet. There were frequent reports of cannibalism: starving peasants digging up corpses for food, parents eating their children or the sick being dispatched so that they could help feed the living. It was without doubt the lowest point of the revolution in China.
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