Famine Within Reach

How China’s landscape prevented even greater losses in the Great Famine.

Mao Zedong (second from left) meeting farm workers to congratulate them on their yield, 9 February 1958 © Hulton Getty Images.

Between the winter of 1958 and the spring of 1961, it is variously estimated that between 16.5 and 45 million Chinese living in rural areas died of starvation and related illnesses, a cataclysm now known as the Great Famine. Its onset coincided with the start of Chairman Mao Zedong’s national development plan, the Great Leap Forward. Today, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) refers to this period as the ‘Three Years of Natural Disasters’.

In the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe, the CCP had a different explanation. At that time, the association between Mao’s Great Leap and the Famine was undeniable, but the CCP deflected blame onto low-ranking civil servants overseeing local areas; it said that cruel and overly zealous individuals twisted the development plans, creating deadly conditions within their jurisdictions. 

New research measuring the terrain of over 200 Chinese regions shows another influence: famine mortality followed a pattern based on landscape. Communities easily accessible by road, rail, or waterway suffered more during the Famine, if under the jurisdiction of the senior leaders politically aligned with Mao. In those places, had the terrain been entirely flat, with no gorges, gullies, or ravines, the Great Famine could have been 17 per cent larger. In other words, ruggedness saved more than 4.6 million lives.

This raises doubts about the CCP’s explanations. Specifically, if the Great Famine was a result of natural disasters, would not greater accessibility make it quicker and easier to send aid? Moreover, if the Famine was due to the imprudent decisions of local leaders, why would ruggedness reduce mortality?

Both critiques have corroborating evidence. First, famine is not a result of natural food shortages but rather occurs when access to food is interrupted, as theorised by the Nobel Economics Prize laureate, Amartya Sen. In the month before the Great Famine began, Mao’s Great Leap Forward interrupted access to food supplies in multiple ways.

The Great Leap was meant to industrialise China and quicken the country’s pace towards becoming a world power. To support this, in August and September of 1958, aided by the army, the CCP reorganised the countryside. Hundreds of millions of rural people were forced to join a new communal system, abolishing traditional townships and villages across China. By October, 26,000 new administrative units, known as People’s Communes, governed 99 per cent of rural China.

Through these communes, the government could more easily levy taxes, mainly through grain procurement, and mobilise agricultural labourers for regional infrastructure projects, such as roads, irrigation, land works and small-scale steelworks. But this took workers away from the food production chain and the communes’ enormous size contributed to a communication breakdown across administration levels. Officials on the ground were about to witness a tragedy of epic proportions and would struggle to relay the facts to those in charge.

The most lethal Great Leap policy was the state procurement of surplus grain. The CCP defined surplus grain as an amount the state deemed necessary for urban rations and export, not relative to the amount of grain produced. This policy left rural communities with little to eat, even if they had a bountiful harvest. Moreover, China’s Ministry of Trade gave clear guidance on how to choose the area from which take the grain surplus: grain should be transported along routes where the cost of transport was less than or equal to half the value of the grain itself. The historian Anthony Garnaut found that, as a result, famine mortality was disproportionately higher near railways and canals.

Many leaders around China not only did not support the Great Leap, but even sounded an alarm in response to its proposals. Officials at different levels of government wrote critical letters to the high-ranking CCP leadership about the policies and their roles in implementing them – the newly established People’s Communes and the new outrageous harvest targets – and threatened that they would ‘reckon accounts with leaders’.

Yet an official’s embrace of Mao’s radical agenda could pay off politically. Mao wanted allies and yes-men in all tiers of his hierarchy. Contenders could, therefore, gain important political positions from Mao’s manoeuvring. Membership in China’s Central Committee, the top legislative body, for example, was typically awarded to long-established politicians. Between 1956 and 1958 however, 33 of 97 appointments were men who had not gone through the normal promotion process. The economist Dali Yang showed that a number of these politicians went on to serve in critical posts during the Great Leap Forward and their leadership exacerbated famine mortality. 

Mounting evidence shows that leaders at all levels were motivated to enact Great Leap policies by threats from their superiors. For example, even as signs of famine were arising in Wuwei County, in Anhui province, eastern China, local officials forcefully searched for and confiscated small grain stores hidden in rural households for fear of suffering consequences – from losing their jobs to being sent to forced-labour camps and tortured. The historians Shuji Cao and Bin Yang, who conducted the Wuwei study, determined that the political atmosphere that motivated the implementation of Great Leap policy at the ground level was key to differences in famine severity.    

This conclusion, seen alongside the insights from the terrain analysis, casts light on the CCP’s original explanation that famine mortality arose as a result of decisions made by low-ranking civil servants. An uneven landscape meant that the roads were poor or non-existent; authorities, therefore, were less able to monitor and browbeat officials in far-flung areas for their lacklustre implementation of Great Leap policies.

Another, simpler connection is to be found in the wake of the Xinyang Incident, where 500,000 people died of starvation, despite plentiful harvests. Soon after, an official report recommended the execution of some 10,000 people deemed responsible for the deaths. The journalist Yang Jisheng, in his recent and damning history of the Famine, found that Mao personally stepped in to protect high-ranking leaders from capital punishment.

The Great Famine is, therefore, the legacy of not only harsh government policy and power but also of how China’s terrain curbed the state’s repression.


Elizabeth Gooch is Assistant Professor of Economics at the Naval Postgraduate School, California.