China’s Last Great Famine—Viewed as Single Page

The loss of life during China’s last Great Famine—in the West and especially the United States—has been blamed on Mao and the Chinese Communist Party, but finding blame on a famine in China isn’t that easy when you know the history of droughts and famines in that country.

It’s no secret that many in the United States think that Mao was a monster worse that Adolf Hitler or Stalin, and that Mao was responsible for killing 30 to 60 million people during what is known as China’s Great Famine.

Until recently, I also believed this because that’s all I have ever heard through the U.S. media—the details that may have caused this famine are not common knowledge, and it appears that no attempt by the Western media has ever been made to reveal them.

However, after discovering what happened in China and the world during Mao’s Great Leap Forward, what was once a certainty—at least to me—is now a mystery and possibly another hoax equal to the hoax that Tibet was never part of China before 1950 and there was a massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989, which Wiki Leaks recently proved wrong.

There’s no mention of drought, floods and severe weather that cut crop yields, and the number of deaths quoted in the video cannot be supported with evidence. In fact, evidence that does exist supports far fewer deaths. Everything else is based on guessing.

I think discovering why Mao might be a victim of this hoax is worth examining, because in 1949 when Mao came to power, life expectancy in China was age 35, but by 1960 life expectancy had improved to age 60, while the population of China had increased by 19.5% with child mortality rates improving dramatically.

If Mao’s policies were responsible for these improvements in life expectancy and population growth, how could he also be the monster responsible for causing a famine that killed millions?

My research revealed that other factors might have contributed to the deaths and all but one of those factors did not deliberately cause people to die of starvation.

After learning of these other factors and completing the puzzle, it is obvious—at least to me— that Mao and the Communist Party did not order the deaths of 20 to 70 million mostly rural peasant in remote areas of China, and the numbers quoted in the West vary widely because different people have made different claims without valid evidence to support those claims. However, there is evidence that supports the lower number. In fact, the actual number of Chinese who starved is probably much lower than what is commonly believed in the United States.

Before I started researching this series of posts, I believed that Mao’s agricultural reform policies were mostly responsible for the famine, and then I learned that drought and severe weather also played a role in the famine.

The other factors that may have contributed to China’s so-called Great Famine will be listed in order of influence with the most damaging factor listed first and the least damaging last.

In 1959 and 1960, the weather was less favorable due to droughts and floods in some provinces, and the situation grew considerably worse, with several of China’s provinces experiencing a severe famine.

Droughts, floods, and bad weather caught China completely by surprise, and in July 1959, the Yellow River flooded in East China and directly killed—through starvation from crop failure or drowning—an estimated 2 million people.

In 1960, at least some degree of drought and more bad weather affected 55 percent of cultivated land in China where only 10 percent of the land area is arable, while an estimated 60 percent of northern agricultural land received no rain at all.  Great Leap Forward – Climate Conditions and famine in China (Wiki)

In addition, it helps to know that droughts and famine are common in China. Between 108 BC and 1911 AD, there were no fewer than 1,828 major famines in China or one nearly every year in one or more provinces.

The first time I heard that droughts and extremely bad weather also played a role in the so-called Great Famine was early July 2011, and it was an accident. I was researching another topic for this Blog and stumbled on that mostly unknown fact.

Then I discovered another more insidious factor when I started working on this post that may have contributed to the deaths of millions of Chinese, who starved during what is known as the Great Famine.

This insidious factor I’m talking about was influenced by America’s paranoia with Communism caused by the War in Korea (1950 – 1953), McCarthyism (1947 – 1957), Vietnam (1955 – 1975), and the Cold War with the USSR (1945 – 1991) set the stage for what may have contributed to mass deaths by starvation in China during the Great Leap Forward.

The US embargo on China was a “complete embargo” that must have contributed to the death toll of the Great Famine, a factor never mentioned before.

During the McCarthy era (1947 – 1957), thousands of Americans were accused of being Communists or communist sympathizers and became the subject of aggressive investigations and questioning before government or private-industry panels, committees and agencies.

In 1950, because China fought alongside North Korea against allied UN forces under the leadership of the US, the United States implemented a “complete embargo” that forbade all financial transaction with Communist China.

The US also convinced many of its allies to join this “complete embargo” to cut China off from the world.

After the Korean war, the United States did not lift this embargo for the next twenty years (1949-1969), with a goal to disrupt, destabilize, and weaken China’s communist government by causing the people to suffer and this “complete embargo” was one of the tools to achieve this.

Sources in the U.S. government have admitted that the objective of the economic warfare was aimed at causing a breakdown of Communist China. The thinking was that problems in the Chinese economy would lead to loss of support from the people causing the collapse of the Communist Republic.  China for and Asia for Educators –

This embargo was lifted in 1969, when Richard Nixon was President, but by then it was too late—millions of Chinese suffered and died during the Great Famine.  Washington

While people were starving in China, and US officials were waiting for Communist China to collapse, Washington D.C. had no idea how much suffering the Chinese people were capable of, and that even with the drought and famine, most Chinese were still better off than they had been for centuries.

How bad was life in China before 1949? Field-studies in the 1930s revealed that in all parts of China, large numbers of landless laborers lived in tremendous poverty, and their situation had not changed since the sixteenth century.  China for

The evidence that the quality of life was improving in China started in 1949. When Mao came to power, life expectancy in China was 35, but by 1960 life expectancy had improved to age 60, while the population of China had increased by 19.5% with child mortality rates improving dramatically.

We might never know how much of an impact America’s economic warfare against China crippled its ability to import food to feed its starving people in a time of drought and famine. In fact, this may have also influenced Mao’s decisions to have the world see China as strong and capable of feeding itself.

The last damaging factors that might have led to millions of deaths due to famine and starvation was the statistical lies of rural farmers and local party bosses reporting crop yields in rural China and Mao’s impossible goals to create a miracle in five years to impress the world.

Mao’s five-year plan for the Great Leap Forward set quotas (goals) to develop agriculture and industry so China would catch up to America and the other Western nations that had invaded China during the 19th century (England, France, Japan, Germany, Russia, America, etc.) starting with the Opium Wars that forced China to allow the foreign powers to sell opium to its people alongside an invasion of Christian missionaries who were allowed to go wherever they wanted to convert the Chinese heathens.

That might be why Mao believed that both agriculture and industry had to grow fast  to make China strong enough to resist another invasion—after all, China was still surrounded by enemies and wars against Communism were being waged in Korea and Vietnam, two countries on China’s doorstep.

Industry could only prosper if the workers were well fed, while the agricultural workers needed industry to produce the modern tools for modernization.

For this to happen, rural China was reformed into a series of giant communes.

The droughts, floods and other severe weather arrived soon after the five-year plan to modernize and grow strong enough to resist another war was implemented and set the stage for a tragedy caused by nature and supported by America’s “economic warfare” in the form of a “complete embargo” of China.

Due to quotas set by Mao’s agricultural policies, no one wanted to be seen as a failure and/or unpatriotic and this generated boastful claims about output that were followed by more boastful claims of incredible crop yields.

Nobody—least of all the central government in Beijing—knew the real output figures. There was a sense of general euphoria in Beijing that China was succeeding.

While rural farmers and local party bosses lied about crop yields, Beijing started exporting rice and wheat to other countries as a source of revenue, because Beijing thought there was a bumper crop. The result was that urban areas suffered with reduced rations but with still enough food to survive.

Food shortages were bad throughout the country. However, the provinces, which had adopted Mao’s reforms with the most energy, zeal and with the most fake bragging, such as Anhui, Gansu and Henan, suffered the most.

In fact, Sichuan, one of China’s most populous provinces, known in China as “Heaven’s Granary” because of its fertility, is thought to have suffered the greatest absolute numbers of deaths from starvation due to the energy that provincial leader Li Jinquan undertook Mao’s reforms.

Once the central government in Beijing discovered the truth, the Chinese Communist Party acted quickly to correct the errors in national agricultural decision-making, to conserve food, and to save as many lives as possible implementing drastic measures to feed those in need and to restore agricultural productivity.

Grain exports were stopped, and imports from Canada, France and Australia (in spite of America’s complete embargo) helped to reduce the impact of the food shortages.  Library

The final question is: Would Mao’s Great Leap Forward have been more successful if there had been no drought, no floods and no “complete (U.S.) embargo”, and the provincial party bosses had not lied about crop yields to Beijing?

It’s no secret that millions of rural people starved to death in China during the famine of 1959 – 1960, but it was a “great” tragedy caused by a complex series of circumstances and blunders—it was not a deliberate mass murder ordered by Mao or the CCP.

In addition, the actual number of deaths was significantly lower than what has been claimed in the West.

The CCP’s lofty goal was to prove to the world that the Party ruled China successfully by boosting crop yields and industrial output.

Another reason the CCP set such unrealistic goals for the five-year plan that contributed to the tragedy that was Great Leap Forward was because of Taiwan, which was recognized by the world as the official government of China and still held its seat in the United Nations.

It wouldn’t be until 1971 that the U.N. recognized the People’s Republic of China instead, and the United States wouldn’t switch diplomatic relations with China from Taipei to Beijing until 1979, finally recognizing the Communist Party as the legitimate ruler of China.

Recommended reading on this topic for those who seek the unblemished truth: From the Monthly Review, Did Mao Really Kill Millions in the Great Leap Forward? by Joseph Ball, and from Griffith University, Australia, Poverty, by David C. Schak, Associate Professor

In addition, more than one book has examined this topic from a scholarly perspective—instead of inflammatory unsubstantiated and inflated claims—but Mao’s Western critics have mostly ignored this work.

In China: Land of Famine (published in 1926 by the American Geographical Society) by Walter H. Mallory, casts doubt on the inflammatory claims, which have been popularized in the West about the post-1949 Mao era. Mallory offers another perspective for understanding what really might have happened during Mao’s Great Leap Forward.

Then from Stanford University Press, in the Economic Cold War by Shu Guang Zhang (August 2002), “the author argues that while the immediate effects (of the complete American embargo of China) may be meager or nil, the indirect and long-term effects may be considerable; in the case he reexamines, the disastrous Great Leap Forward and Anti-Rightist campaign (The Cultural Revolution) were in part prompted by the sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies.”

My wife then mentioned some memoirs published in Chinese and written by soldiers from Division A-341 of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that guarded Mao when he lived in the Forbidden City in Beijing.

These memoirs revealed that when Party members told Mao that rural Chinese in a few provinces were starving due to droughts and low crop yields, Mao didn’t believe what he was told.

To discover the truth, Mao sent people he trusted—troops from PLA Division A-341, who came from rural China—to their villages to investigate the claims of a famine.

When Mao’s trusted bodyguards returned from their home villages to Beijing in late 1960/early 1961 and reported the claims were true, Mao acted swiftly, cancelled the five year plan for the Great Leap Forward two years early and sent the peasants back to their villages from the collectives, and directed the Party to seek help from other countries to feed China’s starving people.

In fact, Roderick MacForquhar wrote in The Origins of the Cultural Revolution that in May 1961, China entered into long-term arrangements with Canada and Australia to insure grain supplies until production in China recovered in addition to imports of American grain laundered through France to avoid the complete American embargo.

Even Henry Kissinger, in his book, On China, wrote,  “The Great Leap Forward’s production goals were exorbitant, and the prospect of dissent or failure so terrifying that local cadres took to falsifying their output figures and reporting inflated totals to Beijing.”

In conclusion, do you remember how many droughts and famines China has suffered from for more than 2,000 years? The answer is in Part 2 of this series: There were no fewer than 1,828 major famines in China or one nearly every year in one or more province. What I find really interesting is that the U.S. government and the traditional private sector U.S. media hasn’t reported this information, and the impressive fact that since 1961, there have been no famines in China for the first time in China’s history. In addition, in the last thirty years, China is responsible for 95% of all poverty reduction in the world.


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the lusty love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

Finalist in Fiction & Literature – Historical Fiction
The National “Best Books 2010” Awards


Honorable Mentions in General Fiction
2012 San Francisco Book Festival
2012 New York Book Festival
2012 London Book Festival
2009 Los Angeles Book Festival
2009 Hollywood Book Festival

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12 Responses to China’s Last Great Famine—Viewed as Single Page

  1. Debbie says:

    hi, another series of riveting posts Lloyd with great information.
    this is the first I have read that explains what might have really happened and seems to take all this finger pointing to Mao.
    in China, most people of a certain age miss the Mao era for the security, food on the table etc….. thank you for this important information.

  2. Once upon a time, I saw a game advertised in History magazine (probably no longer exists). It was called “Who Can Rule China?” The board was a piece of canvas painted with a map of China.

    There were crisis cards, like chance cards in Monopoly and a pair of dice, and some “playing pieces.”

    Each player picked a character. You could be the Emperor, War Lord, Silk peasant, Rice Peasant, Administrator … I forget all the roles,but there were 9 or 10. The books describing characters were long and detailed and your goals and personality were specified. If you were Emperor, you had to reclaim land from the sea, try to feed an exploding population, build public works (winter palace, summer palace, etc.), keep out invaders, maintain the army, try not to raise taxes beyond the point of tolerable and thus avoid coups. If you didn’t find a balance — too many catastrophes (locusts, drought, war, floods, a sudden doubling of population), other players could get together and overthrow you and take your place.

    After several tries, we gave up. It was impossible. No matter what you did, you could not be benevolent, kindly, keep the taxes down while protecting the land, producing good crops, and acting like a proper emperor. It was a learning tool. It wasn’t a lot of fun to play because you couldn’t win. There were always too many natural calamities, wars, and too many people to feed. I expect that was always true and has continued to the present times. China is not easy to rule, no matter what government currently is in power.

    • Sounds like an interesting game. I think the game helps explain why China built the Great Wall starting about 2,600 yaers ago and also built the Grand Canal starting about the same time. I read once that before Christ was born the emperors had their experts find ways to increase crop production and that explains why China has outproduced every country on the planet for crop yields for centuries. In fact the Grand Canal not only helped move produce and merchandize from China’s breadbasket north to Beijing, but it also was used to irrigate crops through a complex irrigation system that tapped in to the water in the Grand Canal—and all this was centuries before Christ was born and more than two thousand years before California built its canal to move water from Northern California to the arid and overcrowded Southern California. California’s water canal is only used to transport water and it’s about 500 miles long. China’s Grand Canal was used to move a lot more than just water and it is still in use today. In addition, the CCP is updating the Grand Canal—that runs for more than 1,000 miles with about 60 locks to deal with elevation gains, so it will be totally operational again in a few years.

      • My first husband was born in Shanghai. He wasn’t Chinese, but he always felt drawn to China. His family lived there for more than twenty years and his earliest memories were of his Amah. He spoke Cantonese before English.

        The game was intended to explain why governing China wasn’t quite so simple as everyone liked to think. Actually, I hope it isn’t as bad as all that because the game was really not playable. You could NOT be the emperor the game asked you to be and do what you were told to do. It was impossible.

        We build the Blackstone Canal here in the mid 1800s and abandoned it 10 years later for rails. Then we abandoned the mills, the rails, the canal, and all the industry moved down south and it’s been mostly unemployment since the early 1900s. We are a tiny example of how things can go wrong and never go right again.

        I never though famine was something to blame on whoever was in power. Government doesn’t control weather. If California were a country, they’d be in the midst of massive famine Their drought shows no sign of giving up any time soon.

      • True about the shortage of water in California. Right now they are pumping the underwater aquifer dry. In some parts of the central valley the valley floor has dropped several feet caused by pumping that water out of natures underground water storage. And predictions are that if this keeps up that aquifer water is going to soon be gone.

        Imagine a game for governing America with all of its different factions in each major political party and fighting tooth and nail to dominate every aspect of the country while calling for less tax and doing nothing to update an aging infrastructure–the bridges and railroads are long overdue for being replaced but it seems the U.S. spends more fighting wars than fixing things that need fixing at home.

      • That aquifer is not just California. It’s the Colorado aquifer. Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, Southern California, parts of Nevada. Once dead, an aquifer CANNOT be revived. They have not idea what they are doing, but the consequences are really scary.

      • Recently there was a lot of press on the fact that fracking in California was also pumping all that poison into some of California aquifers and now we’ve lost that water. The media uproar lasted about a week or so and then it vanished as if it had never been there. The next thing I know the legislature and governor or California give the oil industry to okay to keep fracking and doing what they were doing all along—still pumping all that poison into smaller aquifers all over California. From what I’ve read, that water is gone forever. That waster is now so toxic, that farmers can’t even use it to water their crops.

      • Yup. That’s the way it works. Once you’ve poisoned an aquifer, it’s dead forever. I worked for five years at the Environmental Health Laboratory of the University of Jerusalem. I watched us kill the aquifer in Israel while we begged the farmers to stop using chemical pesticides and fertilizer. They didn’t listen. There is no aquifer now, just the Sea of Galilee and it’s running very very low.

      • I’ve just read to compensate, Israel has been building desalination plants to avert a future water crises—that is if Islamic terrorist don’t blow up the plants.

        Since 2005, Israel has opened four desalination plants, with a fifth set to go online later this year. Roughly 35 percent of Israel’s drinking-quality water now comes from desalination. That number is expected to exceed 40 percent by next year and hit 70 percent in 2050.

        And on that note, “They are building the Carlsbad Desalination Project, which will convert as much as 56 million gallons of seawater each day into drinking water for San Diego County residents. The project, with a price tag of $1 billion, is emerging from the sand like an industrial miracle. In California’s highly regulated coastal zone, it took nearly 15 years to move from concept to construction, surviving 14 legal challenges along the way.”

        Read more here:

        But how long will it take California to build enough desalination plants if each it takes about 15 years to fight legal challenges for each plant?

      • When Ben Gurion became the first Prime Minister of Israel, top of his agenda was desalinazation. They got derailed. Last time I was there was in 2001, so I’m glad they’ve made progress. The situation was scary and close to desperate in ’01. It would be nice if we could implement desalinization here BEFORE eliminating the aquifer.

      • It seems like every step that would lead to a safer, cleaner energy source—solar and wind farms, for instance, and/or water source is fraught with endless court challenges that drag on for years. Because a patch of the land they want to build on might have an endangered moth or frog, so it’s better to let humans suffer and die of thirst.

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