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Education And Debate

China's great famine: 40 years later

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: (Published 18 December 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:1619
  1. Vaclav Smil, distinguished professor (
  1. University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, MB R3T 2N2, Canada

    Forty years ago China was in the middle of the world's largest famine: between the spring of 1959 and the end of 1961 some 30 million Chinese starved to death and about the same number of births were lost or postponed. The famine had overwhelmingly ideological causes, rating alongside the two world wars as a prime example of what Richard Rhodes labelled public manmade death, perhaps the most overlooked cause of 20th century mortality.1 Two generations later China, which has been rapidly modernising since the early 1980s, is economically successful and producing adequate amounts of food. Yet it has still not undertaken an open, critical examination of this unprecedented tragedy.

    Summary points

    The largest famine in human history took place in China during 1959-61

    Although drought was a contributory factor, this was largely a manmade catastrophe for which Mao Zedong bears the greatest responsibility

    We will never know the precise number of casualties, but the best demographic reconstructions indicate about 30 million dead

    Two generations later China is yet to openly examine the causes and consequences of the famine

    Origins of famine

    The origins of the famine can be traced to Mao Zedong's decision, supported by the leadership of China's communist party, to launch the Great Leap Forward. This mass mobilisation of the country's huge population was to achieve in just a few years economic advances that took other nations many decades to accomplish.2 Mao, beholden to Stalinist ideology that stressed the key role of heavy industry, made steel production the centrepiece of this deluded effort. Instead of working in the fields, tens of millions of peasants were ordered to mine local deposits of iron ore and limestone, to cut trees for charcoal, to build simple clay furnaces, and to smelt metal. This frenzied enterprise did not produce steel but mostly lumps of …

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