What do we know – what can we know – about China’s last famine? Between 108 BC and 1911 AD there were no fewer than 1,828 major famines in China, or one nearly every year in one or another province. in 1949 when Mao came to power, life expectancy in China was age 35, but by 1960 life expectancy had improved to age 60, while the population of China had increased by 19.5% with child mortality rates improving dramatically.

So who is to blame for this disaster which Liu Shaoqi later classified as 70% human error and 30% natural disaster. The reasoning is that natural disasters always caused food shortages in China. However, the famine this time can easily be avoided if there are reserve. If Mao is a monster for causing so many starvation death, what would you call the US administration who purposely embargoed China when it was frantically trying to import grain to make up for the short fall? Below is an excerpt from Henry C K Liu’s writing:

In 1963, the Chinese press called the famine of 1961-62 the most severe since 1879. In 1961, a food-storage program obliged China to import 6.2 million tons of grain from Canada and Australia. In 1962, import decreased to 5.32 million tons. Between 1961 and 1965, China imported a total of 30 million tons of grain at a cost of US$2 billion (Robert Price, International Trade of Communist China Vol II, pp 600-601). More would have been imported except that US pressure on Canada and Australia to limit sales to China and US interference with shipping prevented China from importing more. Canada and Australia were both anxious to provide unlimited credit to China for grain purchase, but alas, US policy prevailed and millions starved in China.

It is obvious a shortage of food and low quality of the iron would be exposed in a few months top. As soon as that was discovered, Mao and the CPC immediately went into damage control mode. From Oct 1958 to Aug 1959 a total of five top level meeting was held. In these meetings Mao took full responsibility of the blame and do not seek re-election of the post of Chairman of the China (the position was also translated as President of China). Liu Shaoqi would be elected as the next President. Mao, however, would still be ranked number one in the politburo and hold on to the position of the Chairman of the Central Military Commission. The 2nd Five Year Plan was cut short and ended in 1960. Liu was to formulate a new domestic economical model. In 1961 a temporary model was introduced to cushion the damages inflicted by the GLF. The 3rd Five Year Plan would not be launched until 1966, the year another monumental event would make its presence felt. to the extent that the census data of 1953 and 1964 support the assertion that 14 (or 12 or 16) million died, depending on the presumed baseline death rate, the data also support with equal likelihood that no one died as a result of the Great Leap Forward!

We cannot therefore make any assertion whether anyone died as a result of the Great Leap Forward because we cannot refute the null hypothesis that no one died due to the Great Leap Forward, as far as the census data of 1953 and 1964 are concerned. Wim F. Werthheim, Emeritus Professor, the Univ. of Amsterdam Ð Wild Swans and MaoÕs Agrarian Strategy, Australia-China Review. Often it is argued that at the censuses of the 1960s Òbetween 17 and 29 millions of ChineseÓ appeared to be missing, in comparison with the official census figures from the 1950s. But these calculations are lacking any semblance of reliability. At my first visit to China, in August 1957, I had asked to get the opportunity to meet two outstanding Chinese social scientists: Fei Xiao-tung, the sociologist, and Chen Ta, the demographer.

I could not meet either of them, because they were both seriously criticized at that time as rightists; but I was allowed a visit by Pang Zenian, a Marxist philosopher who knew about the problems of both scholars. Chen Ta was criticised because he had attacked the pretended 1953 census. In the past he had organised censuses, and he could not believe that suddenly, within a rather short period, the total population of China had risen from 450 to 600 million (by the way: with inclusion of 17 million from Taiwan), as had been officially claimed by the Chinese authorities after the 1953 ÔcensusÕ. He would have like to organise a scientifically well-founded census himself, instead of an assessment largely based on regional random samples as had happened in 1953. According to him, the method followed in that year was unscientific.

For that matter, a Chinese expert of demography, Dr. Ping-ti Ho, Professor of History at the University of Chicago, in a book titled Studies on the Population of China, 1368-1953, Harvard East Asian Studies No.4, 1959, also mentioned numerous ÔflawsÕ in the 1953 census: ÒAll in all, therefore, the nationwide enumeration of 1953 was not a census in the technical definition of the termÓ; the separate provincial figures show indeed an unbelievable increase of some 30% in the period 1947-1953, a period of heavy revolutionary struggle (PP.93/94)! My conclusion is that the claim that in the 1960s a number between 17 and 29 million people was ÔmissingÕ is worthless if there was never any certainty about the 600 millions of Chinese. Most probably these Ômission peopleÕ did not starve in the calamity years 1960-61, but in fact have never existed. Judging how readily and resiliently ChinaÕs GDP recovered after the Great Leap Forward (see chart below 8, notice how quickly the after the GLF, the rate of growth rebounded (if a massive number of people died, you might expect the slope to be permanently depressed, until the population could catch up)), my guess is that not that many people actually died Ð at least not on scale of millions upon millions.

Whatever your inclinations, we must acknowledge front and center that no reputable systematic data exists to make broad pronouncements of how many actually died (or did not die) during the Great Leap Forward, and how much piecemeal and anecdotal evidence form the basis of current discussions of the Great Leap Forward in the West.

Did Millions Die in the Great Leap Forward?

Critique of Frank Dikotter’s book on the famine.

A great interview about the period is here.

And this just in: Air pollution in the EU was responsible for 400,000 premature deaths — in 2010 alone.


Written by Godfree
Visiting China and studying it since 1967. Interested in its culture, politics, education and economy.