World Information Transfer UN Intern, fall 2011

China’s Great Famine: 1958-1961
-15 million deaths officially, but scholars argue actual numbers are between 30/40 million
-population censuses were inaccurate until 1980s, so the magnitude of the famine was silenced until two decades after it occurred
-“The data on food availability also suggest that, in contrast to many other famines, a root cause of this one was a dramatic decline in grain output, which continued for several years and which in 1960-61 involved a drop in grain output of more than 25%.” (Ashston, et al.,614)

Historical Context of Famine

China’s Vulnerabilities
– “China has been living in the shadow of famine for centuries” (Ashton, 620).
– 1876-79: drought in north China led to famine, which resulted in between 9.5 and 13 million deaths
– geography makes north China more vulnerable: flooding from the Huai and Hai rivers as well as dikes of the Yellow River
– human intervention, despite geographical vulnerabilities and natural disasters, can help:
– rail transport and international relief efforts (the China International Famine Relief Committee) provided grain and reduced number of deaths to 500,000 (example from the 1876-79 China famine in northern regions)
– quality of crops contributed because modern techniques were not employed
– China has significantly improved agricultural practices for better reliability
– famine was a result of both food shortage as well as government policies called the Great Leap Forward (Ashton, 624-630)
– populations were forced to work in iron mines, cut trees for charcoal, build clay furnaces, and smelt metal
– agricultural policy: commune system which created a reliance for non-agricultural services- agriculture subsequently was neglected and produced much less than previous private, individual entities, weak incentives for private farmers
– little response to early food shortage indicators and indicators came slow because statisticians were criticized before for making too grand of assumptions that reflected poorly on the country
– urbanization policy: in the 1950s, China experienced extensive migration to urban areas; population almost doubled to 100 million in 1957- thus, millions were sent back to the rural areas
– international trade policy: no imported food until 1961
– natural disasters: drought, floods, typhoons, plant disease, or insect pest resulted in many areas without any crops; in 1960, around 60 million hectares were affected

Knowledge of China’s famine (Ashton, 630-632)
– little was known as it occurred and it was difficult to believe for two reasons:
– Chinese government was commended for raising health and nutrition levels
– globalization gained momentum in the 1950s
– “The lack of democracy and of freedom of information have been pointed to as reasons behind why China experienced a major famine between 1958 and 1961 with excess mortality “gures ranging between 16.5 and 29.5 million” (Besley, 639).

– mainstream media noted agricultural production declines, but because of the lack of transparency, access to real numbers of effect on the population was unknown
– Chinese government issued false reports; thus, the media did not reflect the situation accurately (Ashton, 631; Devereux, 27)
-not until 1961 was the famine widely accepted and known in the international community

– little international intervention was due to the lack of information about northern China
– International Red Cross Societies offered aid in early 1961, but China rejected assistance
– China International Famine Relief Commission: a national organization that was responsible for aid; started by (Becker, 12)
– American Red Cross: completed reports for earlier famines in north China before the Great Famine (Becker, 19)

Ashton, Basil, Kenneth Hill, Alan Piazza, and Robin Zeitz. “Famine in China, 1958-61.” Population and Development Review 10.4 (1984): 613-45. Print.

Becker, Jasper. Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine. New York: Free, 1996. Print.

Besley, Timothy, and Robin Burgess. “Political Agency, Government Responsiveness and the Role of the Media.” European Economic Review 45 (2001): 629-40. Print.

Devereux, Stephen. “Famine in the Twentieth Century.” Southern African Regional Poverty Network. Web..


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