Teng Hsiao-p'ing
Teng Hsiao-p'ing; drawing by David Levine

In recent years a comfortable assumption for those concerned with the plight of the world’s poor has been that Mao’s battle against poverty in China was extraordinarily successful. Events in China since Mao’s death force us to re-examine this assumption. At the top, dissatisfaction with the results of Mao’s social and economic policies is now evident: to cite just one example, Teng Hsiao-p’ing has publicly referred to the last ten years of the late Chairman’s rule as a “lost decade.”

At the bottom, dissatisfaction with what the Maoist system was able to deliver seems no less apparent. In the big cities, Western reporters have seen protests against “unacceptably low” living standards; from the countryside have come rumors of rising crime rates and even insurrections in response to standards of living considerably lower than in the big cities. Capitalist China was notorious for the abject poverty in which so many of its people lived. We may now wonder to what extent abject poverty was actually alleviated, and to what extent material standards of living were actually improved, between the Liberation in 1949 and Mao’s death in 1976.

Extracting information on the plight of the poor from any less developed country is a difficult task; our problems for China are compounded by the fact that the Chinese government does not believe in the free release of information. After 1954, when the Soviets straightened it out, the State Statistical Bureau would have been in a position to supply us with accurate and detailed information on economy and society, but by 1959 the bureau was scrapped.1 It had done its job too well: the numbers it was churning out were too embarrassingly at variance with official pronouncements about the progress of the ill-fated Great Leap Forward. For the past twenty years—two thirds of the history of the People’s Republic—statistics have been erratic and occasionally contradictory.

Passionate anticommunists sometimes insist these numbers have been systematically falsified, but this seems extremely unlikely: a more germane question might be whether the central government has either the technical competence or the political inclination to gather detailed information from the more than half a million villages which have been wielded into fewer than sixty thousand communes. But certainly the information we get can be disingenuous and self-serving. Unless for example one is familiar with both the specifics of Chinese agriculture (details of which Peking supplies in relative abundance) and the rhetoric which surrounds them, one might not realize that the announcement of a “bumper crop” often means that output has fallen, nor would one necessarily realize that 1977, the reference year for How China Became Self-Sufficient in Grain,2 saw the greatest grain trade deficit in Chinese history.

Notes and observations from visits to. China may flesh out the picture; it is unwise, however, to put too much faith in them for our particular purposes. Carefully supervised and highly impressionistic tours can be useful for understanding, for example, the structure of organizations, the patterns of political participation at the grass roots, or the criteria by which income is allocated in the commune. Such tours do not provide a basis for judging the extent of serious poverty or the current standard of living in China. Most visitors spend their time in the cities, which house only about a sixth of China’s people, and these at a distinctly higher level of comfort than their rural comrades. When visitors are allowed into the countryside, it is usually to see showpiece projects.3 (The huge investment of manpower and wealth in the Chinese military establishment—and now in war-making—has remained largely inscrutable. Yet it must have radical effects on the distribution of resources.)

Even if visitors were not steered toward the ideal in China, however, there would still be problems in piecing together a representative picture of living standards. In land mass and population China is larger than Europe, and its regional differences are no less pronounced. Even the cleverest and most intuitive analysts could not be expected to report back on living conditions and poverty in Europe after a three-week vacation in Switzerland; this, however, is more or less what we ask of our China hands.

Al Imfeld, the author of China as a Model of Development, is oblivious to such problems, basing his entire work as he does on a few of Mao’s more memorable essays, a dozen issues of the Peking Review, and a travelogue by the Italian novelist Alberto Moravia. Like so many other well-meaning Sinophiles who deliberately confuse a Chinese ideal with Chinese reality, Father Imfeld seems quite willing to believe anything he is told, and as a result makes numerous errors of fact and interpretation. John Gurley’s China’s Economy and the Maoist Strategy is more useful. But from an economist who understands the uses and pitfalls of information on China and also happens to be sensitive to the problems of inequality and poverty, we might have expected more. Gurley seems content either to present a general, and idealized, picture or to foist statistics on steel production and electrical capacity on us. For a poor agrarian nation, such figures only tangentially reflect changes in conditions of poverty or levels of comfort.


Alexander Eckstein was until his recent death one of the world’s foremost analysts of material change in contemporary China, and China’s Economic Revolution is full of interesting and valuable information. Unfortunately, Eckstein concerns himself more with changes in the economic system than with what these changes have meant for the Chinese people. Nonetheless, his book contains a wealth of material that can help us to get some idea of how successfully Maoist China came to grips with its own poverty.

By what means can we judge changes in the standards of material life in China? Although the choice is somewhat arbitrary, I think we can get a fair picture if we can piece together what has happened on five fronts: population, hunger, literacy, the status of women, and the degree of existing inequalities. In this first of two articles we shall look at population and hunger.



What can demographic statistics tell us about living conditions in China? Most obviously, they are the base from which to make “per person” comparisons. Saying that China is better off than India simply because it produces twice as much grain is ridiculous; at the very least, we need to know how many mouths the grain must feed in each country. Another use of population figures, however, is far less obvious.

In death and birth rates lie clues about the state of health, and perhaps even of social development, in China. The death rate, after all, reflects life expectancy, and life expectancy is the single best index of national health. The birth rate, which at first glance may not seem to indicate much about social wellbeing, carries meaning of its own as well. Birth rates depend on family size, and for most of man’s history high birth rates and large families have been the rule. There was (and in many parts of the world, still is) logic behind this: in a world of poverty, parents are desperately dependent on their children for their own survival. When parents are young, their children can help make ends meet by working around the house or in the fields; when parents become too old or sick to work themselves, their only hope for support is their children. A significant drop in the birth rate means, among other things, that parents are no longer driven by the need for children and their labor which characterizes hand-to-mouth existence. It seems useful to try to find out what we can about China’s population, and its birth and death rates.

Although it should be much easier to count heads than to compute a nation’s GNP, demographers insist that population figures in most poor countries are nothing more than broad approximations. Some estimates in the recent past have been astoundingly off base. Ethiopia’s population in the early 1950s, according to contemporary estimates, was about twelve million; it is now believed to have been nearer to twenty million.4 On the other hand, Nigeria’s census takers seem pretty consistently to have overcounted their people, in some regions by factors of more than two.5

Fortunately, China had one of the oldest and most talented bureaucracies in the poor world, which even after twenty years of disruption through civil war and Japanese incursions could still make a pretty creditable count in the early years of the communist regime. Their figure for 1953, 582 million people, has not been seriously disputed. Their estimates for birth and death rates, however, have been adjusted by outsiders, who have pointed out that the sample for the calculation of vital rates contained a disproportionate number of city dwellers, who tend to live longer and have lower birth rates. The adjustments put China’s birth rate for 1953 in the middle forties per thousand, its death rate in the low twenties per thousand. These rates would not have been much different from India’s or Indonesia’s in the early 1950s, and in those two nations life expectancy for males was under forty, while the average number of children per family was six.

With figures for the present population, we run into difficulties. Although Sinologists suspect that at least one census may have been attempted during the past quarter of a century, no census figures have been released.6 If China’s public food rationing system covers its entire population, one would think there would be fairly accurate and consistent statistics. In fact, ministries in Peking happily work with figures which diverge by as much as one hundred million people.7


While there are many guesses about China’s current population—different branches of the UN, for example, have made at least three—not all guesses are equally educated. Population experts must take into account the fact that the regime releases population statistics not on typical regions which represent the average, but on those it considers models. Neither the Worldwatch Institute in Washington nor the US Agency for International Development, which distributes America’s foreign aid, seems to appreciate this. They give very low estimates of birth rates, death rates, and population growth for China;8 if they checked their figures for internal consistency, they would find that they have estimated life expectancy in China to be well above Sweden’s.

More reliable estimates have been put forth by John Aird of the US Census Bureau9 and Leo Orleans of the Library of Congress.10 They both estimate China’s current population to be more than 900 million; Aird puts it at over one billion. (Teng Hsiao-p’ing, incidentally, recently cited a figure of one billion to foreign guests.) If Orleans’s estimate is correct, China’s population has been growing by an average of 1.8 percent a year; if Aird is nearer the mark, the rate has been about 2.2 percent. Eckstein’s guess of 2 percent a year since the Liberation seems both cautious and reasonable; it would imply that China’s population today is in excess of 950 million.

If these three estimates are not far off, China’s population growth rate really has not been dramatically different from that in many other parts of the poor world. The rate of growth of Bangladesh has been about 1.9 percent since 1950; that of India, 2.1 percent; of Indonesia, 2.3 percent; and of Pakistan and the African continent, 2.4 percent. Starry-eyed Sinophiles like Father Imfeld are patently incorrect when they claim otherwise.

But while population growth rates may have been roughly similar, birth and death rates in China are very different from those in many other poor areas. Both Aird and Orleans believe the death rate has come down extremely quickly in China. If the death rate is as low as both think (around ten per thousand now), life expectancy in China today would be slightly above sixty. This would mean the Chinese were far healthier than the Indians or Pakistanis, whose life expectancies are currently in the mid-to-low fifties, or the Indonesians, Bangladeshis, and Africans, whose average life expectancies are all under fifty years. But it would be wrong to think that the Chinese are healthier than all the rest of their poor Asian neighbors. In Sri Lanka, for example, which is believed to be considerably poorer than China, and in South Korea, which until a few years ago was not much richer, life expectancies are closer to seventy than sixty.11

Orleans and Aird also agree that the birth rate has come down in China, but Aird says it is now in the low thirties per thousand, while Orleans thinks it is in the low twenties. This is a significant difference of opinion. If Aird is right, the Chinese now have an average of four children or more, about the same number as the Thais today, and not much fewer than the Indonesians or the Indians, whose total fertility rate is currently around five. If on the other hand Orleans is correct, the three-child family would be the norm, just as in South Korea and Taiwan. There is a world of difference between India or Thailand, where the best investment some parents ever make is their children, and South Korea or Taiwan, where the state of rural development is relatively advanced, and wealth is likely to flow from parents to children, as in the West.

But what the figures of both Orleans and Aird strongly suggest is that the demand for children is weak in the cities but still strong in the countryside. Currently young parents are encouraged to have no more than two children if they live in cities, or three if they live in the countryside. Incomplete but convincing evidence suggests that the target rates have been achieved in the urban areas, but not in many of the rural communes.12 Although fertility control programs may have been more successful because city dwellers are easier to coerce—there is always the threat of denying ration tickets to the extra mouths—the discrepancy in family size probably reflects markedly different standards of comfort in city and country.

A surprising feature of social policy in China for the last decade has been the rigorous emphasis on limiting births.13 Mao may have said that China’s greatest resource was its people, and Marx may have railed against the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of Malthusianism, but in the eyes of Chinese leaders large families have been an evil to be combated since the late 1960s. Commitment to reducing fertility is so strong that it is now written into the Constitution. During the past dozen years almost all other policies were reversed or interrupted at some point; commitment to population control, however, held firm. This gives family planning a status resembling that of atomic research and other national security concerns, which are held above politics. Why does the government work so hard to push the birth rate down? This mystery becomes a little clearer when we examine the agricultural scene.



Of all the claims of the Maoist regime, perhaps the most important and impressive was that it succeeded in feeding the civilization where famine had stalked peasants for thirty centuries. In the past few years this self-evaluation has gained currency in the West; Imfeld reflects fashionable opinion when he states, “In contrast to India, China has eliminated hunger.” However, Imfeld does not back up his assertion by fact; nor does Gurley, who also insists that hunger in China is a thing of the past. Eckstein, who is far more familiar with the facts than either Gurley or Imfeld, avoids the subject of hunger almost entirely; he believes, apparently, that there are many fewer empty mouths in China today than before Liberation, but that it is impossible to know just how severe malnutrition may be. Can we really tell how well the Chinese are fed?

Officially, of course, there is no malnutrition in China; consequently, there can be no statistics on its incidence. We are left instead with two surrogate indices for malnutrition, each of which is only partially satisfactory: life expectancy and food grain availability.

Life expectancy gives us a very rough approximation of how well people eat because the average length of life in a poor country is largely determined by the death rates of the group most severely affected by poor nutrition, children. Surprisingly, very poor countries raise their life chances only marginally by looking after their elderly better or by stemming the terrible carnage associated with childbirth; the real gains are made by seeing children through their first five years. In many countries half of all deaths are of children under five; in Indonesia, which is hardly the worst-off of the poor countries, a one-year-old has less chance of surviving another year than a sixty-one-year-old.14

When a baby dies in a poor country, the most likely killer is malnutrition; bronchitis, diarrhea, measles, or “infection” may be the cause listed on the death certificate, but the fact of the matter is that a child weakened by hunger can be picked off by any of a number of diseases we tend to think of as totally inconsequential.15 Vaccines and inoculations certainly save young lives, but in the long run protein and calories are the best medicine for children. There are few, if any, societies with low life expectancies where children eat well, and there are equally few with very high life expectancies where children are seriously malnourished; the two phenomena are incompatible.

What, then, does life expectancy tell us about infant mortality, and implicitly about hunger, in China today? Statistically, there is a close correspondence between life chances and child health. In Bangladesh, where life expectancy is believed to be about forty-seven, about 13 percent of all people die in their first year of life, while in Taiwan, with its life expectancy of sixty-nine, infant mortality is 2.6 percent. (This latter number is close to 2.0 percent, the average for the rich nations, and may represent the point after which improvements in health are only marginally related to alleviating hunger.) China’s life expectancy, according to both Aird and Orleans, who, we remember, disagree on other aspects of China’s population numbers, is probably in the low sixties, say, somewhere between sixty and sixty-four.

We have infant mortality figures for other countries in this range; they run from a low of 4.6 percent for Mauritius to a high of 8.4 percent for Brazil, and center around 6 percent. It is unlikely that hunger has not played some part in keeping infant death rates high in these countries, and there is no apparent reason why this should not hold for China as well. Indeed, if health care is as available as is often claimed, China’s hunger problem would be understated by infant mortality figures: the same hunger-weakened baby who could be kept alive by a barefoot doctor in China might not be so lucky in Brazil.

Just how much hunger infant mortality rates in this range suggest is difficult to say. For what it is worth, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has recently published an extensive survey in which it estimates for various poor capitalist countries the numbers and proportions of people living below a caloric level which nutritionists widely regard as “semistarvation.”16 By the FAO’s estimation, poor capitalist countries with life expectancies in the low sixties feed an average of about 16 percent of their population a semistarvation diet of 1,550 calories a day or less.

Does this mean that a sixth of China’s population—roughly 150 to 170 million people—live in “semistarvation?” It may, but there are good reasons to think the proportion might be considerably lower. For one thing, the 16 percent figure for those other countries may be an overestimate. The FAO, whose importance as an organization hinges on the world hunger situation, has an incentive to exaggerate this problem, and past world food surveys have earned the FAO a reputation for doing just that. For another thing, although the FAO’s estimates of people with “semistarvation” diets centered around 16 percent for nations with life expectancies in the low sixties, the range was enormous: it ran from Colombia, at 28 percent, to Paraguay, at 7 percent.

Finally, the countries for which data was available were capitalist. In those countries (Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico, and Paraguay) food is cleared through the market; in China, by contrast, a significant proportion of the total is distributed through a ration system. It speaks to the effectiveness of China’s distribution system that life expectancy in China, with its GNP per capita of about $300, is probably over sixty, while the average life expectancy of capitalist countries with about the same GNP per capita averages less than fifty.

On the other hand, it would be unwise to assume that rationing has completely eliminated hunger. To begin with, rations are not free handouts: they are allotments, at relatively low prices, which one may buy if one has the money. Children and old people, the two groups most vulnerable to hunger, are also the two groups least likely to be earning an income. Second, rations are not fixed at a national rate: they vary by region according to the ability to pay or produce. Rich Heilungkian’s allotment is nearly twice as high as impoverished Hopeh’s, and poor communes within Hopeh receive even less than this provincial average.17 Third, it is not clear that the ration system covers the entire population, as the huge discrepancy in population figures among Peking ministries suggests. There is little doubt the cities are well covered: everyone who is supposed to live in urban areas is issued a ration card. In the countryside, coverage may be more sporadic. There is little information on how substantially the central government or surrounding regions support districts which are chronically impoverished or suddenly stricken with harvest failure.

There is no doubt that China has been able to cut dramatically the proportion of its population doomed to hunger. Since the Liberation, infant mortality has probably fallen by two thirds or three quarters. It would not be unreasonable to assume that the incidence of hunger has fallen just as dramatically. Perhaps it has dropped even more substantially; we do not know. It would be unreasonable, however, to assume that hunger has been completely eliminated: China’s life expectancy seems to be too low to hope for this. It would be unreasonable, moreover, to claim that China is the bestfed poor country: so long as there is a basic biological connection between life expectancy and hunger, the population of Taiwan, South Korea, Sri Lanka, and the Kerala province of India (to take a few examples), whose life expectancies are significantly higher than China’s, would appear to be at least marginally better off.


How Much Food?

While the amount of foodgrain available per person is hardly the perfect index of nutritional progress, it can probably tell us more about China than about most other poor countries, for two reasons. The first concerns distribution. In much of the poor world income inequality is more pronounced now than a generation ago; hence, foodstuffs are distributed less equally, so that a rise in average production could accompany a decline in consumption for the poorest, and hungriest, strata. In China, however, income distribution seems very roughly to have been the same since about 1955; production increases, for this reason, are less likely to be scooped up by the rich, and declines to be shouldered by the poor.

Second, the foodgrains—rice, wheat, coarse grains, and tubers—have supplied the overwhelming majority of protein and calories in the Chinese diet, and they continue to do so. Much has been made of the diversification of the Chinese diet over the past generation, but it is very easy for well-feasted foreign guests to overestimate the extent of these changes. American agronomists have marveled—rightly—at the fact that there are now something like 300 million pigs in China18—five times as many as twenty years ago, twice as many as in America today. It would be wrong, however, to assume that this very creditable achievement has turned the Chinese into a nation of carnivores. Hogs take twice as long to raise in China as they do in the US, and when they finally reach market they weigh half as much.19 In fact, therefore, America probably produces twice as much pork.

Much of the Chinese pork is exported for foreign exchange, and the remainder must be divided among four or five times as many plates as in the United States. In America pork is a secondary source of meat—it accounts for maybe a quarter of our total consumption—while in China it is the predominant source of animal protein. Even if the Chinese are much less finicky about the parts of an animal they are willing to eat, meat must still be a flavor only hinted at in soup and sauce for all but the most privileged.

Vegetable consumption per person has probably not risen much, if at all, since the 1950s,20 and while fruit production is up, the quantities consumed are so small (less than ten million tons is believed to be produced for a nation of over 900 million people, much of this exported)21 that it does not make a noticeable difference. One fairly careful set of estimates suggests that three quarters of the protein and five sixths of the calories in the Chinese diet today come from foodgrains;22 a generation ago these proportions would have been only a percentage point or two higher. In many other poor countries increases in the availability of foodgrain would understate the overall increase in the availability of food during the past generation; in China, this does not seem to be a problem.

How rapidly did availability of food per capita increase under the Maoist regime? Western scholars generally agree that in 1976, the year of Mao’s death, China was harvesting about 272 million tons of foodgrains.23 This would mean that output had risen about 3.3 percent a year since the Liberation, because production is believed to have been about 110 million tons in 1949. But 1949 must have been a year of unnaturally low agricultural output: after all, it was the year of the final and total collapse of the Nationalist government. A better base year for comparison might be 1952, when civil order had been restored and land reform had been completed, or 1957, after the collectivization of the countryside, but before the spread of the commune system.

What do figures show for those years? Foodgrain output in 1952 was about 155 million tons; for 1957, it was perhaps 185 million. These base years give us growth rates of 2.4 percent and 2.0 percent, respectively. When rates of production growth are so close to population growth, the increase one calculates in production per person obviously depends heavily on the demographic rate one chooses. Using Orleans’s estimate of population growth, foodgrain output per person increased about 14 percent from 1952 to 1976; using Eckstein’s guess, however, the increase is 9 percent, and if Aird is right, the improvement over the past quarter century was only 3 percent.

With 1957 as the base, the situation looks even worse. Orleans’s figure would show an increase of less than 5 percent; by Eckstein’s guess, agriculture would barely hold its own against population; and Aird’s numbers would show output per person falling three percent. With this range of outcomes to choose from, it is hard to make specific pronouncements about the increase in production per person over the past generation. The best we can say is that if nutrition improved significantly over this period, it was not because much more food was being produced.

It is interesting to compare the increases in production per person China might have achieved with those of other poor countries. For poor capitalist countries taken as a whole, the improvement since the early 1950s has been about 13 percent.24 For “hopeless” India, the improvement has been over 14 percent.25 Simply from the standpoint of production per capita, then, China’s performance does not look very impressive. The only region, in fact, which has certainly fared more poorly than China is Africa, which was crippled with freakish droughts and a Sahelian crisis for more than a decade.

Unimpressive as this all may sound, China’s production history looks even worse if we go back to the 1930s, before political confusion, civil war, and the Japanese invasion brought food production down to unusually low levels. Two large-scale surveys of Chinese agriculture in the early 1930s put foodgrain production at 180 million tons and 190 million tons, respectively. This would mean that over the forty-five years since the early 1930s, China would have pushed up its foodgrain production by 50 to 60 percent.26

Most plausible estimates of China’s population for the early 1930s, however, put the numbers around 500 million.27 This would mean that over the past forty-five years, China’s demographic increase has been somewhere between 80 percent and 100 percent. From these numbers, we find that Chinese food production per person since the 1930s would have fallen 12 percent at best; if we use the lower food and the higher population growth estimates, the drop would be 20 percent. It is probably true that both surveys were biased toward richer farmers in richer regions, and hence may have overestimated contemporary harvests, but one must be willing to argue for astoundingly high margins of error to try to show that China is producing more foodgrain per person today than it did half a century ago.

Why has China made such a poor showing of boosting foodgrain production per person? It is not for lack of the “agricultural inputs” necessary to achieve high yields. During the past generation China has increased the proportion of its irrigated farmland from something like a quarter of the total to just under a half;28no other nation on earth can make a similar boast. Since the early 1950s the use of fertilizer per hectare has more than tripled.29 The availability of nonhuman power—animal and mechanical—has risen dramatically: good estimates suggest it has doubled.30 The availability of human labor, according to a convincing study, has risen considerably more rapidly than foodgrain output.31 We can only resolve these apparent contradictions by assuming that efficiency in agriculture has fallen significantly since the Liberation. If these new inputs are being used less and less effectively then the long-term growth of foodgrains could actually fall below the rate of growth in agricultural labor, as indeed seems to have happened.

A drop in agricultural efficiency is an extremely unusual phenomenon. In any sector of a modern economy efficiency tends to rise; innovations take hold, and workers pick up new skills, allowing a society to produce more with less. In Taiwan, where agriculture has been extremely efficient, a unit of agricultural expenditure can produce nearly 30 percent more than a generation ago.32 In India, a nation not generally acclaimed for agricultural efficiency, the comparable increase has been about 8 percent.33 For efficiency to decline, let alone stagnate, a nation must be experiencing serious problems.

What could these have been? To avoid a lengthy digression on planning and agricultural policy since 1949, I will mention just three of the more obvious factors which might be responsible. The first is the deterioration of the Chinese capacity for agricultural research. In the early 1950s, China could boast a cadre of highly trained agronomists the equal of any poor country and many rich countries as well. These men knew how to get results: while the West was still trying to perfect rice plants that were short stalked and high yielding, Chinese agronomists had already developed such plants in the laboratory, and introduced them into the fields.34

The Chinese government, however, wasted their talents; high-powered research stopped because it was “elitist”; advanced training for promising graduate students, who might carry the flame of discovery for the next generation, was prohibited as “Confucian”; a large fraction of agricultural colleges and research stations were shut down altogether for a couple of years, and an even greater proportion of the experts who staffed them were sent to the fields to learn from the peasants. This it seems they did, and just as importantly, the peasants learned from them. But China achieved this short-term gain at the cost of a decade of stagnation in agricultural research, and at the cost of a ten-year hiatus in training the first generation of home-grown researchers.

Another problem has been inept highlevel planning during the periods when “politics takes command.” The most disastrous examples come from the Great Leap Forward of 1958 and 1959. Early in this campaign cadres were instructed to have peasants plant rice seedlings closer together; this, the farmers were told, would guarantee heretofore unparalleled yields. In fact, output fell sharply. Peasants knew what party officers did not: rice does not grow well when it is crowded. 35 While the rice crop was failing in the south, extensive new irrigation work in the north was sealing the fate of the wheat crop. The North China plain is dry, and its ecology is fragile. Yields vary greatly from year to year, but are usually low; to transform the plains into a region of high and stable yields, literally millions of workers were assigned to rerouting rivers and building reservoirs. In the rush of “spontaneity” in which these projects were undertaken, there was neither the time nor the inclination to check whether the proposed canals were hydrologically sound.36 Often they were not. In vast regions yields collapsed because their water had been diverted to hundreds of thousands of hectares of land which now lay flooded, or poisoned with water-borne salts.

In a communist economy, of course, lags in technology and high-level ineptitude can be corrected. A less tractable problem, however, is motivating peasants to produce as much as they can as efficiently as possible. In the Chinese system the prices of goods were not supposed to reflect scarcity, but rather “social values”; a worker could not expect to be rewarded either in proportion to his results or even in full proportion to his effort. Under these conditions, agricultural workers apparently lacked motivation and incentive.

Visitors are almost always moved by the dedication and selflessness of the commune workers they meet, but the fact remains that the 5 percent of China’s cropland allowed to remain in private hands produces about a fifth of China’s food output.37 If we had figures for black market transactions, the proportion would be even higher.

During the decade before Mao’s death the Chinese government made cautious but pragmatic changes to encourage farmers to work harder and to get agriculture moving. Agricultural taxes fell, and agricultural prices were allowed to rise. The system of rewards was brought more in line with effort. Terms of trade between farm and city improved.38 If these marginal reforms improved farm life, it was certainly not because foodgrain output rose sharply. It seems much more likely that farmers used this newly granted slack to reduce the backbreaking drudgery of their lives by working a little less hard, or by attending their private holdings a little more assiduously.

It is the drop in the efficiency of agriculture, I suspect, that may explain the Chinese government’s obsession with reducing fertility. The Chinese leaders seem to be faced with what is sometimes referred to in the vernacular as a “primary contradiction.” Their current system of agricultural organization has proved unable to push up output at anything approaching the rates they had at first hoped for: since the early 1950s, in fact, the rate of foodgrain growth in China has been the lowest of any region in the poor world. Growth in output has been so low that there is a very real possibility it may run second in the race against population. Thus, the Chinese government has been faced, to put matters in the extreme, with two choices: either abandon the socialist experiment in the countryside in the hopes of pushing up food production, or get people to have fewer children.

IV The Worst Off

How much food is available in China today, and where might hunger still exist? The answers to both questions are still largely guesses. The FAO puts the average daily calorie supply in China today over 2300 39—this would be about the same as in Iran—but the basis for the FAO’s per capita computation was a population estimate in the low 800 millions, a number probably at least one hundred million too low. More convincing, and more recent, is the Joint Economic Committee’s estimate of 2100 calories,40about the same level as in Indonesia or Pakistan. It is possible to feed a nation perfectly well on this much food, providing it is equally distributed, but distribution in China is less equal than many think.

To begin with, there is a significant difference between food consumption in urban and rural areas. Not only is food of a distinctly higher quality in the cities, but there is more of it. In China in the early 1950s, urban people ate about 20 percent more than rural people 41—about the same discrepancy as in Brazil; there is little evidence that this ratio has changed. This would mean that city dwellers on average might get something like 2400 calories a day, a level not so much lower than Japan’s in the early 1960s.

On this sort of a diet, it would be easy for a population to be well fed; indeed, reports from medical teams in Shanghai and other urban centers show infant mortality rates so low that malnutrition would not appear to be much of a problem. In the countryside, with its average calorie supply of perhaps 2000 per day, things might be different. According to the FAO, 2000 calories a day is the supply level of countries such as Botswana, Guatemala, India, and Zambia, all of which, by the FAO’s estimation, experience serious hunger. In these countries, of course, the primary cause of malnutrition is unequal distribution. In China this problem is decidedly less pronounced, but then again China has problems of its own. Climate is colder in China than in these nations, and in China, thanks to lower rates of unemployment and underemployment, active work is much more part of the daily routine. Chinese bodies, consequently, need more fuel.

In most poor countries, hunger is a rural problem; so too, it would seem, in China. In the countryside of other poor nations the communities most severely tormented by hunger are the poorest, the most isolated, and/or the communities where harvests are most uncertain. There is no reason to suppose this pattern would not hold for China as well. Entire provinces are known to be extremely poor: Szechuan, whose population may now exceed one hundred million, is certainly one of them. When Teng Hsiao-p’ing was purged and sent back to this, his native province, in 1975, he is said to have wept publicly at the conditions he saw.42

Further west, mountainous, barren, isolated Tibet might still be severely afflicted by hunger. Before annexation in 1951, life for the mass of the population was probably less comfortable than in neighboring Nepal; Nepal, however, was hungrier than India. Even if the Chinese have done a good job of bringing up standards of living in Tibet—and this is still a point of contention43—it is hard to believe the Chinese have had either the financial or the bureaucratic resources available for the enormous effort that would be involved in making Tibet the single well-fed region in Central Asia.

To the northeast, the unpredictable cycles of drought and flood which have played havoc with the peasants of the North China plain for hundreds and hundreds of years may have been brought partially under control, and perhaps more importantly, the policy of building local grain reserves has meant that fewer children will die as the result of a bad harvest. But grain output still swings erratically in the northern provinces, and in the villages the swings must be even more pronounced,44 and it would be unreasonable to assume that these swings cause no hardship there today.

We must remember, furthermore, that hunger is determined not by the best, or even by the average, but by the worst conditions in a nation. Even within China’s most prosperous provinces—which, after all, are the size of big nations in the rest of the world—infant mortality could be high, and hunger prevalent, in certain districts.

Without adequate health and food, man cannot live; with only adequate food and health, however, life may hardly be worth living. In the next issue we shall examine the information we have on how well the Chinese can read, on how well women are treated, and on the magnitude of the economic inequalities which persist after a generation of Maoist development policy. It is important to compare China’s progress in reducing poverty and raising material living standards against that of other poor countries, not just to see how well China has done, but to see whether other poor countries could profit by using the “Chinese model.”

This is the first part of a two-part article on China.