Why did the Chinese starve to death in the ’50s without protest?

Please, go read these two posts by one of my very favorite writers right now. She knows whereof she speaks.

I remember reading how the Georgian peasants were convinced Stalin was unaware of their plight as they starved to death in the 1930s, and if there was only some way they could alert him…. But alas, millions and millions died. And Mao knew, and Stalin knew. No, I don’t believe Mao wanted the peasants to die and there’s evidence he was horrified when he learned what the peasants were eating to survive. (Stalin, on the other hand, ever the “man of steel,” showed no such concerns.) But Mao was too wrapped up in his own ideology to admit his Great Leap Forward was anything but. And the result is one of the tragedies so immense, so incomprehensible, like the Holocaust, that the more we read about it the less we can comprehend it. Xujin’s wonderful posts help us comprehend it, but they don’t make it any less of a crime against humanity.

Thirty percent bad – Deng was awfully kind.


Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 61 Comments


Perhaps you didn’t take things into perspective. A little more than 10 years ago, it is not uncommon for people to die in China because the country is ravaged by war and Japanese Occupation. The reason why women have so many kids is that some children will die because of disease or some other reasons. It happens in many 3rd world, pre industrialized countries and it happens today. If you look at the graph, the death rate per 1000 was about as high in 1949 as it was during the great leap forward. I wouldn’t be surprised that the death rate was much much higher during the civil war and Japanese occupation. So to put it into perspective, it is not so bad.

October 13, 2009 @ 8:32 pm | Comment

Pug, whatever. I’ve seen similar graphs about Jewish resettlement after WWII used to explain away the Holocaust (“See, it wasn’t that bad!”). What’s the point? To show the number who died in the GLG was ten million more or less than previously believed? The 25- 40 million figure is from China’s own records and is frequently stated by Chinese historians. To revise the history now and say there were other factors and so, in your words, the horrors of the famine “is not so bad” is classic revisionism. And it’s bizarre. Anyone who has read about the misery these people went through while many of their village granaries were full of rice to be shipped to the cities cannot help but conclude this was a crime against humanity, made possible by the substitution of common sense with deranged ideology. Maybe you think the communalization of the farms and the closing of universities 10 years later also “wasn’t that bad”?

October 14, 2009 @ 12:19 am | Comment

Thanks Cypher. I have to admit, I am getting tired of these topics. Need to put up some fresh posts.

October 14, 2009 @ 12:20 am | Comment


Do we blame on FDR’s and Hoover’s bungled domestic policy which caused millions of people to starve to death? Yet it wasn’t Mao’s intention to starve millions of people rather it was due to a bad domestic policy and bad climate which compounded the problem. It is certainly easy to point a finger at Mao as the boogeyman for problems but famines are relatively common until Norman Borlaug revolutionized farming.

October 14, 2009 @ 4:05 am | Comment

Mao didn’t want those people to starve, and neither did Hoover or FDR (though I do not see a valid comparison there, and have never heard one made before, and know of know comparable mass starvation under these two US presidents). If indeed it was shown that significant quantities of grain were available in local granaries yet, thanks to a decree from the US federal government the local population was deprived of the grain that could have saved them and thus slowly starved to death by the tens of millions, with no one daring to complain lest they be named an enemy of the state and put to death – if that happened under the watch of either Hoover or Roosevelt, yes, we would definitely blame their policies. The only comparable famines were those in Russia, when millions of Georgian farmers starved to death; that was an act of murder on Stalin’s part. In Mao’s case, it falls somewhere between murder and neglect, or at least in the category of ideological blindness. This was no ordinary famine, and there is no doubt many millions could have been saved had it not been for the Great Leap Forward and Mao’s rigid ideology. Mao is as much the “bogeyman” for the GLF as Hitler and Himmler were for the Holocaust. They were the architects of two of history’s most lethal man-made catastrophes.

October 14, 2009 @ 4:15 am | Comment

The best comparison to starvation under Mao would be the Bengal Famines, except in the latter case Britons were free to complain about it but it did little good- 1/3rd of the Bengal population starved to death.

The main difference is Mao was just stupid, the British chose profit over human life.

But of course everyone just pretends it never happened.

October 15, 2009 @ 6:53 am | Comment

The argument that other famines were worse and that blame on the British leaders is greater than the blame on the Chinese leaders is irrelevant and inadmissible. It means nothing to the tens of millions who died, and one atrocity does not excuse the other.

October 15, 2009 @ 7:06 am | Comment

Right- and the British Raj and Germany’s Nazi past does not make them experts at (preventing) genocide, nor does it give them any particular right to point fingers.

October 15, 2009 @ 7:35 am | Comment

All countries have blood on their hands. By your logic, no country is fit to call out genocide, and should all simply shut up and let the victims die.

I’m losing patience with the trolling. This is a thread about what Chinese people did to other Chinese people in China. Anyone who counters by saying India did this or Hitler did that is trolling.

Time for a new thread so we can get out of here.

October 15, 2009 @ 7:43 am | Comment

The real reason, Richard, is that the starvation was not nearly as bad as described by CIA propagandists.

It was bad, but the death toll is indeterminate- the CIA is clearly lying when they say 20-70 million. Most “Western” sources derive from this CIA 10-20 million figure, and they add their own numbers to it based on speculation.

I know that the famines hit Henan and Sichuan particularly bad, but my relatives in the North saw their communities survive through the ordeal.

October 15, 2009 @ 7:52 am | Comment

Merp, this is the last word on this: When you say the famine “wasn’t nearly as bad” as some say, and then say your reasoning is that maybe only 10-20 million died as opposed to 20-70 million, it is akin to going easy on the Holocaust because maybe only 4 million Jews died, not 6 million. (And I am not equating the famine with the Holocaust, just using it as a point of reference as a massive tragedy with dispute over the number of alleged victims.) There is nothing to argue about here – whether your best-case scenario or the CIA’s worst-case scenario is right, it is still one of the great catastrophes of the last century. Finally, most sources I’ve read over the years estimate the number of victims at somewhere around 30 million. I don’t think any current historian cites any number close to 70 million.

The 30 million number is generally accepted even by the Chinese government, and is probably a bit on the cautious side. Even China Daily remarks as a matter of fact, “During 1959–1961 when China was hit by a severe famine, 30 million Chinese starved to death.” No matter what the British or Americans or Nazis or Russians did, this calamity occurred in China, and while famine has been a regular feature throughout Chinese history, this one stands out because large swathes of the population might have been saved had it not been for Mao’s disastrous rural grain allocation program. This was a crime against humanity on a huge scale. Mao “didn’t mean to kill all those people,” but he managed to do it anyway. Of course, Mao “killed” these people indirectly; he never ordered them to die or wanted them to die (though he was not concerned enough to take measures to save them). So I don’t put him in quite the same category as Pol Pot or Hitler or Stalin. But he’s not that far behind, when his net effect on China’s population is taken into account.

We’ve exhausted this topic and the trolling is too annoying. Thread closed.

October 15, 2009 @ 8:28 am | Comment

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