Causes of the Great Chinese Famine

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The Great Chinese Famine was the period in China during 1959-1961, in which poor economic policies produced the largest famine in human history . It can be clearly seen that massive agricultural policy changes during the “Great Leap Forward” were the key factor in causing the famine. As well as this, numerous secondary factors also increased the severity of the holocaust. The unfavourable weather during the Great Leap Forward intensified mass crop failures, contributing to the food shortage. Mao himself was the second major factor that escalated the scale of the famine, in his ignorance he had failed to realise the existence of the disaster and sacrificed millions in an attempt to make his policies seem successful. He chose to repay China’s debts ahead of schedule, and appallingly, maintained its status as a major exporter of grain, further reducing the already diminished food supply . Finally, over-reporting of crop production and ill distribution of food meant that the rural population were left with nothing to eat. The culmination of all these factors led to the starvation of the entirely country for “three bitter years” and killed directly up to 30 million people.


The Great Leap forward is undeniably the primary cause of the Great Chinese Famine, this nationwide policy aimed to use China's vast population to rapidly transform mainland China from a primarily agricultural economy into an industrialized communist society . The weight of evidence suggests that this was a major economic disaster which significantly hindered China’s agriculture. Although it could be argued that by itself the Great Leap Forward could not have caused such a great disaster. There is no denial that it was the single biggest cause which led to the economic collapse of China and brought famine across the country. There were many factors of the Great Leap Forward that were of a major importance to the cause of the famine: -During the Great leap forward, Mao advocated of collectivisation, as a result all peasant land were seized by the government and the cultivation of private plots were forbidden. This forced collectivization substantially reduced the incentives for peasants to work well, and as a result peasants in communes nationwide had become “slack and lazy” , this is because there was no longer an incentive to work as peasants will be paid the same amount regardless of how hard they had worked during the year. - Collectivisation meant that farming was organised into communes and each commune would be assigned on a specific crop to plant, the central government did not take into account if the weather and soil conditions of the particular commune was suited to the crop or if the peasants within the commune had any experiences of planting this crop. Because of this, the crop production of many communes dropped significantly. - Iron and steel production was established by Mao as a key requirement for economic advancement. Up to 41 million peasants (which accounted for 21% of the agricultural labour force) were ordered away from agricultural work to join the industrial workforce. Mao also encouraged the establishment of small backyard “steel furnaces” in every commune and in each urban neighbourhood. The “steel” produced here are nothing but low quality lumps of pig iron and could not be used in the production of anything. The sacrifice of major farm labour gave little in return. - Because of the new communist system, peasants who used to save up food in preparation for natural disasters were now prohibited to do so, as all their food are allocated to them by their communal leaders and private storages were forbidden. Nationwide, communal dining which provided free food for communes and city neighbourhoods also used up all of the grains stored, Chang and Wei stated that “in some rural areas the grain consumed by peasants in a three-month period amounted to what usually sufficed...
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