The previous articles to this series are as follows :

Part 1 – The Nehruvian Blunders – Part 1

Part 2 – The Nehruvian Blunders – Part 2

Part 3 – The Nehruvian Blunders – Part 3

Part 4 – The Nehruvian Blunders – Part 4

The Great Chinese Famine – 

The disorganization and waste created by the Great Leap, compounded by natural disasters and by the termination of Soviet economic aid, led to widespread famine in China.

The Great Chinese Famine was a period between 1959 and 1961 in the history of China, characterized by widespread famine. Some scholars have also included the years 1958 or 1962. It is widely regarded as the deadliest famine and one of the greatest man-made disasters in human history, with an estimated death toll due to starvation that ranges in the tens of millions (15 to 55 million). The most stricken provinces were Anhui (18% dead), Chongqing (15%), Sichuan (13%), Guizhou (11%) and Hunan (8%).

The major contributing factors to the famine were the policies of the Great Leap Forward (1958 to 1962) and people’s communes, launched by Mao, such as inefficient distribution of food within the nation’s planned economy; requiring the use of poor agricultural techniques; the Four Pests Campaign that reduced sparrow populations, which disrupted the ecosystem; over-reporting of grain production; and ordering millions of farmers to switch to iron and steel production.

Policy changes affecting how farming was organized coincided with droughts and floods. As a result, year-over-year grain production fell dramatically in China. The harvest was down by 15% in 1959 compared to 1958, and by 1960, it was at 70% of its 1958 level. Specifically, according to China’s governmental data, crop production decreased from 200 million tons (or 400 billion jin) in 1958 to 170 million tons (or 340 billion jin) in 1959, and to 143.5 million tons (or 287 billion jin) in 1960.

There are widespread oral reports, though little official documentation, of human cannibalism being practised in various forms as a result of the famine. To survive, people had to resort to every possible means, from eating earth and poisons to stealing and killing and even eating human flesh. Due to the scale of the famine, some have speculated that the resulting cannibalism could be described as “on a scale unprecedented in the history of the 20th century.”

Yang Jisheng’s seminal book, Tombstone: The Chinese Famine 1958-1962 has described instances of cannibalism during that period.

In Henan alone, there were at least 20 cases of people eating human flesh. An 18-year-old girl drowned her five-year-old cousin and ate him. The boy’s 14-year -old elder sister was also driven by hunger and ate her brother’s flesh. In Anhui, there were 63 cases of cannibalism between 1959 and 1960. A couple strangled their eight-year-old son, and then cooked and ate him. In the same province, a man dug-up a corpse, ate some of it, and sold a kilo as pork.

Starving children in Shanghai during the famine

Famine along the mid-Yangzi was averted in 1956 through the timely allocation of food aid, but in 1957 the Party’s response was to increase the proportion of the harvest collected by the state to insure against further disasters. Moderates within the Party, including Zhou Enlai, argued for a reversal of collectivization on the grounds that claiming the bulk of the harvest for the state had made the people’s food security depends upon the constant, efficient, and transparent functioning of the government.

By the winter of 1958–59, Mao himself had come to recognize that some adjustments were necessary, including decentralization of ownership to the constituent elements of the communes and a scaling down of the unrealistically high production targets in both industry and agriculture. He insisted, however, that in broad outline his new Chinese road to socialism, including the concept of the communes and the belief that China, though “poor and blank,” could leap ahead of other countries, was basically sound.

In 1959, Mao had to delegate day-to-day leadership to pragmatic moderates like Chinese President Liu Shaoqi and Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping.

(To be continued in next article………..)

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