Chinese Famine of 1958-1961

Historically, China suffered from more than its share of famines. Poor communication and transportation networks made it difficult for markets in grain to emerge. Combined with political instability, this often meant that a localized crop failure led to famine since importing food from other parts of the country was extremely difficult. As an example, about 5 million people died during a famine in the 1940s exacerbated by civil war and the policies of the nationalist KMT (1).

Ironically, the Chinese Communists, led by Mao Tse-Tung, prevailed in the civil war in part because they won the support of peasants by promising equitable land redistribution and an end to famine. Instead, in 1958-61 the Communist agricultural policies created the worst famine in human history.

To understand the cause of the Chinese famine, first the reader must look back to the Soviet famine of 1931-3. Under Stalin, peasants and others were forced into large collective farms where the state dictated farming methods and production quotas  any and all private farming efforts were strictly forbidden. To make matters worse, Stalin placed Trofim Denisovitch Lysenko in charge of agricultural science in the Soviet Union.

To put matters bluntly, Lysenko was a quack. He rejected modern genetics theory, for example, as «fascist» and instead adopted a modified form of Lamarckism that incorporated some Marxist ideas. In keeping with these ideas, Lysenko argued that seeds could be dramatically altered by merely altering their environment. For example, Lysenko believed that if seeds were soaked in extremely cold water, they would then grow in cold environments. The Soviets wasted valuable time and money instituting Lysenko’s harebrained schemes, and Lysenko used his position to promote the careers of other pseudo-scientists with similarly bizarre ideas (2).

Although the result of instituting Lysenko’s pseudoscience and Stalin’s collectivization techniques caused a famine that killed millions in the USSR, Mao and other Chinese Communists were enamored of Stalin and insisted on replicating the Soviet experience in China (apparently against the advice of the Kruschev and other Soviet officials).

In October 1955, Mao ordered Chinese peasants to be organized into collectives of 100-300 families. He would later order even larger collectives to be organized. As a result, in 1956 grain yields fell by up to 40 percent. Not satisfied, Mao ordered farmers to put into practice several Lysenko-ist practices, which combined with the collectivization, decimated Chinese agriculture (3).

These practices included:

close planting – Lysenko believed, against all the evidence, that members of the same species don’t compete for resources and advocated planting seeds very closely. In China, farmers were ordered to massively increase the number of seeds they planted. In the South, for example, a farmer might plant 1.5 million seedlings per 2.5 acres. The Communists ordered farmers to increase that to 6-7 million seedlings per 2.5 acres in 1958 and then 12-15 million seedlings per 2.5 acres in 1959. The results were predictable – few seedlings survived (4).

deep plowing – Lysenko’s colleague Teventy Maltsev argued that the deeper farmers plowed, the deeper the root structure of the plant would grow. Farmers in China were ordered to plow 4 to 5 feet deep. In 1958 in Liaoning province, for example, 5 million people spent more than a month deep plowing 3 million hectares of land (5).

extreme pest control measures – Mao launched an extreme campaign to control pests, including birds and insects. The sparrow bore the brunt of the pest control measure (the goal was to exterminate the bird). Unfortunately, with the decline in the sparrow population the insect population exploded, seriously compromising what few crops grew (6).

no chemical fertilizer – following Lysenko, the Chinese ordered an end to the use of chemical fertilizers (7).

leaving land fallow – following another of Lysenkos colleagues, Vasily Williams, the Communists ordered farmers to leave at least one-third of their land fallow. Most areas didnt comply to that extreme, but many did leave 14 to 20 percent of their land fallow (.
The predictable results of these measures soon followed  famine on a scale never before seen in China or any other part of the world. Unlike previous famines which had been localized to one or another region of the country, the famine of 1958-61 struck the entire country.

But as millions of peopled starved to death, nobody could publicly acknowledge the reality of the famine or criticize the collectivization efforts. When Minister of Defense Marshal Peng Dehuai wrote a private letter to Mao summarizing the disaster he was purged as a «rightist» by Mao. During much of the famine most officials reported enormous gains in agricultural output, and China continued to export large amounts of grain. In some areas, grain was maintained in storage facilities while people starved  no one wanted to risk being purged as a «rightist» (9).

Finally in 1961, Liu Shaoqi ordered the abandonment of Maos policies in his province, and other provinces soon followed suit in part over fears that the famine was threatening the Communist Partys control over the country. Mao opposed the reforms, but no longer had the power base to strike at officials who introduced in reforms. When Mao once again consolidated his power, he launched the Cultural Revolution which ended up killing many of those who brought the famine to an end.

The death toll was staggering  so large, in fact, that until very recently many commentators in the West dismissed the claims of Chinese refugees as exaggerations. Although exact data are not available, estimates range anywhere from 30 to 40 million deaths caused by the famine. Demographic information suggests a significant number of these deaths, perhaps as many as a quarter, were young girls who may have been allowed to starve before other family members due to the low value traditional Chinese culture placed on daughters (10).

Ironically, much as the Chinese used the Soviet agricultural policies as a model with disastrous results, so Chinas experiment in collectivized agriculture was used as a model by several developing nations who experienced much the same results. Cambodia, Ethiopia, Somalia and North Korea all adopted the collectivized agricultural experiment at one time or another and suffered from man-made famines.

Footnotes:

1. Becker, Joseph. Hungry ghosts: Mao’s secret famine. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996, p.22.

2. Becker, Joseph. Hungry ghosts: Mao’s secret famine. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996, pp.64-70.

3. Becker, Joseph. Hungry ghosts: Mao’s secret famine. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996, pp.47-57.

4. Becker, Joseph. Hungry ghosts: Mao’s secret famine. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996, pp.72-73.

5. Becker, Joseph. Hungry ghosts: Mao’s secret famine. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996, pp.73-74.

6. Becker, Joseph. Hungry ghosts: Mao’s secret famine. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996, pp.76-77.

7. Becker, Joseph. Hungry ghosts: Mao’s secret famine. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996.

8. Becker, Joseph. Hungry ghosts: Mao’s secret famine. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996, pp.75-76.

9. Becker, Joseph. Hungry ghosts: Mao’s secret famine. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996, p.92.

10. Becker, Joseph. Hungry ghosts: Mao’s secret famine. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996, pp.266-274.

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