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China’s great famine 40 years later: a need for historical closure

Published Review

Forty years ago China was in the middle of the world's largest famine where some 30 million people starved to death (see Field Exchange 8). A review1 article in the British Medical Journal discusses how this man-made famine was at the time largely covered up within China and that even today China has not undertaken an open, critical examination of this unprecedented tragedy.

The review traces the origins of the famine to the leadership's decision to launch the 'Great Leap Forward' whereby economic development was to be promoted through promoting heavy industry. Based on Stalinist ideology tens of millions of rural peasants were ordered to mine local deposits of iron ore and limestone, to cut trees for charcoal and to build simple clay furnaces to smelt metal. Peasants were forced to abandon all private food production.

At the same time fabricated reports of record grain harvests were issued to demonstrate the superiority of communal farming. These gross exaggerations were then used to justify the expropriation of higher shares of grain for cities and the establishment of wasteful communal mess halls serving free meals. In reality by the spring of 1959 there was a famine in a third of China's provinces.

The famine showed clear marks of 'omission', 'commission' and 'provision'. These three processes recur in all modern man-made famines. The greatest omission was the failure of China's rulers to acknowledge the famine promptly and to secure foreign food aid. The Chinese government took nearly three years to act. Taking away all means of private food production, forcing peasants into mismanaged communes and continuing food exports were the worst acts of commission. Preferential supply of food to cities and to the ruling elite was the deliberate act of provision.

The true extent of the famine was not revealed to the world until the publication of age distribution data from the country's first reliable population census in 1982. These data made it possible to estimate the total number of excess deaths between 1959 and 1961, and the first calculations by American demographers put the toll at between 16.6 and 23 million. More detailed later studies came up with 23 to 30 million excess deaths and unpublished Chinese materials hint at totals closer to 40 million.

The lack of accuracy is as expected. All death tolls cited for major famines have large margins of error. This is true even for events unfolding amid unprecedented publicity. An attempt to discern a coherent picture of morbidity, mortality and nutritional status during the 1991-2 famine in Somalia, an effort based on 23 separate field studies, ended in failure. Similar controversies surround the recent estimates of the excess deaths in Iraq attributable to economic sanctions after the Gulf war.

The author highlights the need for open discussion, moral examination and historical closure and cautions that if accounting does not happen soon, the direct memories of survivors will be lost and many facts will never be known. The review also points to Western indifference to the great famine. Eyewitness stories of refugees who fled to Hong Kong were widely dismissed and rarely reported during the famine years. Incredibly, the 1997 edition of the New Encyclopaedia Britannica does not even list the catastrophe in its tabulations of famines in the past 200 years.

Show footnotes

1Smil.V (1999): China's great famine: 40 years later. BMJ Volume 319, 18-25th December, pp 1619-1621

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China’s great famine 40 years later: a need for historical closure. Field Exchange 10, July 2000. p5. www.ennonline.net/fex/10/china

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