Starving to Death in China

Important information bearing on the recent controversies over the extent of famine in China1 is revealed in the following article translated from the official Chinese journal Nongye Jingji Congkan (Collected Materials on Agricultural Economics). (The original article appeared on pages 18 and 19 of issue number 6, published on November 25, 1980.) Access to this journal is restricted to cadres who have a letter of introduction from the Party secretary of their own organization, but a copy was. obtained by a foreigner working in China, with whom I have collaborated in writing the accompanying introduction.

This article describes the history of the Liyuan commune in Anhui province, some 250 miles northwest of Shanghai. About half the original article is translated here, covering the period up to 1978. The rest deals with recent reforms of the commune system and consists mainly of statistics on production, income, and consumption, which demonstrate the benefits of the new agricultural policies carried out in China since 1978. Since this sort of information is readily available both in Western scholarly writings as well as in the English-language Chinese press, e.g., Beijing Review or China Daily, it is not included here.

The translated portion provides considerable information on conditions in Liyuan commune during the extended famine following the “Great Leap Forward” and the rapid establishment of people’s communes in 1958. The new leaders in China have openly criticized the mistakes made during this period but have by and large not referred to famine. References to mass deaths during the Leap have, however, appeared on occasion in the Chinese press, as when a senior economist, Sun Yefang, wrote of the “high price in blood” paid during the Leap, when “the national death rate rose from 10.8 per 1,000 in 1957 to 25.4 per 1,000 in 1960.”2 This would imply that in 1960 about 9 million people died in excess of those who died in the normal year of 1957.

Whether or not Sun’s data are accurate is a matter of debate among Western demographers, but their open publication in China suggests that knowledgeable Chinese believe that a terrible tragedy occurred. The present article on famine in one commune lends support to this proposition. Although the commune described here is in a poor region of China and is not therefore representative of conditions everywhere, it is sufficiently similar to other poor places to suggest that the severe famine in this commune was by no means an isolated incident.

Of particular interest is the article’s use of the Chinese term e si, which may be literally translated as “to starve to death.” This term has not been commonly used in accounts of the period that are issued openly by the Chinese government, but it is used twice in the article. The article also described conditions after the Great Leap Forward, showing that the commune never recovered fully from the devastation of the Leap and that disruptive political movements, particularly during the decade of the “Cultural Revolution,” contributed…

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