New research in China seems to have finally demolished the myth that tens of millions died due to the actions of Mao in the Great Leap Forward. Rather it seems that the famine of 1959-1961 was the last of a series of famines that China had endured throughout its history. The actual death toll figures for this famine were comparable to previous famines and had the same underlying cause-the poverty of a country that had been kept in a state of economic backwardness by imperialism.
The new death toll figure for 1959-1961 is provided in a paper by the mathematician Sun Jingxian. His paper is not widely discussed in the West, and a brief summary of it is needed. Sun published it in the April 2016 issue of Contemporary Chinese Political Economy and Strategic Relations: An International Journal:
Sun Jingxian, “Population Change during China’s “Three Years of Hardship” (1959-1961)
or on page 453 of:
Population Change alternate link
(If you cannot access it here, google it or email me on email@example.com. The journal is open access but links to it tend to disappear and re-appear fairly frequently.)
The article presents evidence for a figure of 3.66 million deaths due to famine. It is 12% of the 30 million figure favoured by Judith Banister and other American demographers in the 1980s. It is 8% of the 45 million figure favoured by Frank Dikotter. It is equivalent to about 0.5% of the country’s population dying over a three year period. If true, it is still a tragic death toll, even if it is lower than previously believed estimates. However, we must acknowledge that a very poor country, as China still was in the 1950s and early 1960s, was very susceptible to famine. As western demographers accept a Chinese famine in 1928-31 had left 3 million dead, a 1936 famine in west China had claimed 5 million lives:
We must also acknowledge that the famine of 1959-61 was thankfully the last famine China was to suffer. Finally, we must acknowledge there is no certainty about the figure of 3.66 million. Rather Sun’s article shows how certainty about the figures we have from this era can never be properly achieved. We do not and probably will never know if the true figure was less or more than 3.66 million.
Sun’s figure is the total figure for all deaths in excess of the total deaths in the ‘good year’ of 1957 when the death rate reached a historic low point in China. It does not necessarily mean 3.66 million starved to death, it includes those dying prematurely due to the effect of poorer nutrition on already fragile health, etc. Even without famine death tolls could have fluctuated above the 1957 figure in some years anyway.
What Sun Jingxian’s article does show is that the real figure can be nowhere near 11.5 million or 30 million or any of the other previously believed figures.
Sun starts with the Chinese population statistics released in 1983 that first gave rise to the high death estimates for 1959-1961. These figures indeed show a much higher death rate figures for these years, especially for 1960, where the death rate appears to be two and a half times the low rate China apparently achieved in 1957:
|Year||Death Rate (per thousand)|
The issue is whether all the deaths reported in 1960 actually occurred in that year. In general, a death is recorded in the year it is reported which may be different from the year in which it actually occurred. Usually, of course, this would not make much difference to death rate figures. In China, in the late 1950s, it would have made a big difference. This is because the statute to create a full Household Registration System was only announced in January 1958. Sun quotes examples of how it was only in 1960 that the provinces were actually implementing the system. This creates an obvious possible source of the huge recorded death rate in 1960.
Further proof of Sun’s thesis involves a little more complexity. However, readers without a strong knowledge of mathematics should not be discouraged from reading Sun’s article as it really only comes down to fairly simple arithmetic. Sun develops his argument by looking at the issue of how birth rates and death rates do not correlate properly with the year-end population figures (net external migration into and out of China was negligible). Thus from 1956 to 1959, the year-end population figures indicate a higher population growth rate than that indicated by the birth and death rate figures. For 1960 to 1964 the year-end population figures show a lower (or more negative) growth figure than those indicated by the birth and death rate figures. For 1968 to 1979, the year-end population figures again indicate a higher population growth rate than that indicated by the birth and death rate figures.
If birth and death rates do not correlate with year-end population counts, then the overall figures are clearly a mess. However, there is also a pattern to the mess with years where the year-end population figure shows a shortfall in relation to the population total that would be indicated by births and deaths being made up for in other years when the population increase indicated by birth and death rates was higher than that indicated by the year-end total.
The pattern is to do with internal migration within China. It must be understood that the Chinese year-end population figures were calculated by taking the previous years population count adding births, deducting deaths and adjusting for migration as indicated by people registering or cancelling their residence registration. The authorities did not do a separate head count each year. Thus if the birth and death rate figures do not correlate with the year-end population totals, the reason must be something to do with migration.
Up to 1960 large numbers of peasants were moving to the towns. They were registering as new households in the towns but not always cancelling registration in their villages. This led to an apparent increase in the year-end population count. From the second half of 1960 economic problems caused by the famine and the withdrawal of Soviet technical assistance in industry caused by the Sino-Soviet split led the government to send a huge number of recently arrived peasants back to their villages from the cities. Not all of them registered themselves back in their villages on arrival, apparently hoping their return to their village was temporary. Thus between 1961 and 1964 quite a large number of peasants were taken off urban population registers but did not reappear on rural registers. Sun presents convincing figures to back up these claims. After 1970, especially, they drifted back to the cities and registered there. This meant they reappeared in the population figures leading to an increase in population unreflected in births and deaths.
Clearly then the ‘population decrease’ of ten million in 1960 was not a real population decrease caused by famine but a result of migration and problems in the registration system.
Once we realise this, the pieces of the puzzle come together. As stated the real reason for the apparent huge death rate increase in 1960 was to do with the fact that deaths in previous years had been understated because the registration system was not complete and only some deaths got registered. Once the registration system improved, death rates seemed to increase. This improvement, between 1959 and 1961, meant that local officials discovered that people on population registers had actually died some years previously. These earlier deaths were registered in the Great Leap Forward years leading to an apparent massive death toll. The huge ‘drop’ in the population was not associated with these non-existent deaths but with migration patterns associated with industrialisation and the effects of the economic reverses of 1960.
Sun presents independent figures showing the totals for urban and rural migration. These can be correlated with the figures for ‘anomalous’ population growth, that is apparent population year-end change not reflected in birth and death rate figures. This provides strong independent evidence that the apparent fall in population in the Great Leap Forward was due to migration, not a massive death toll. Sun’s figures, therefore, conclusively show that the apparent falls in population in official population figures are due to the elimination of double registered households and the failure of those returning to their villages from the cities to register once they returned.
Sun then adjusts official mortality figures in line with government sampling surveys of 1953 and 1957 that gave higher death rate figures than those given by the defective registration system. That is the sampling survey figures for 1953 and 1957 indicate higher death rates than the death rates for the 1950s published in 1983 that were based on the household registration system. As with the official figures, Sun finds that the death rate hit a post-revolution low in 1957, but this was 13 per thousand not 10 per thousand. This allows Sun to make a further estimate of how many deaths were unreported in the registration system up to the end of 1958, and he finds this figure is 7.5 million. With the improved household registration system, Sun estimates that 90% of them were ‘cleared’ during 1959-1961. Thus the official number of deaths in 1959-1961 has to be reduced by 6.75 million. The death rates in these years are still higher than the ‘good year’ of 1957 after the 6.75 million deaths are removed. When Sun compares the higher death rate of 1959-1961 with 1957, he concludes there were 3.66 million extra deaths.
As Sun acknowledges, his figure can hardly be certain. His own death rates up to the end of 1958 are estimates extrapolated from the more certain figures he has for 1953 and 1957 which are based on survey data. However, his figures are the best we have available. Everyone accepts that the official figures make no sense, and Sun’s analysis shows how the 30 million estimates of Judith Banister and other US demographers in the 1980s cannot be true. Once the apparent falls in Chinese population can be shown to be due to internal migration, it is impossible to see how figures of 30 million deaths in the Great Leap Forward can be plausible. Such high death rates are could not have happened without big falls in population.
It may be asked, what links the various critics of the Great Leap Forward death toll figures? Utsa Patnaik’s critique of the 30 million figure relies on the original death rate figures supplied by the Chinese authorities in 1983, which on their own would indicate a much lower death toll of 11.5 million. Her argument is that these figures were little more than the death toll that existed before the Chinese revolution or the normal death rate in India at the time. My own argument was that death rate figures supplied by the Deng Xiaoping led regime in China for the Great Leap Forward could not be relied on due to Deng’s political campaign against Mao’s legacy:
Did Mao Really Kill Millions in the Great Leap Forward?
Looking at Sun’s work, it is impossible to endorse the death rate figures presented in 1983 as he shows they are unrealistic and contradicted by survey evidence. It is impossible to totally ignore the 1983 figures either because the figures for urban and rural migration can be correlated with the apparent discrepancies in year-end population totals. As Sun points out, the statistics gathered by the State Statistical Bureau can be put into order to come up with realistic population and death rate figures rather than simply assuming they are totally fake. It is a matter of recalculating the year-end population figures with the improved death rate estimates.
However, a common thread does run through all the critiques. Patnaik, after all, is sceptical about the official Chinese death toll figures she discusses. I too maintain scepticism about the motives behind the 1983 presentation of figures. After all survey evidence from 1953 and 1957 contradicting the death rate figures presented was available to the authorities in 1983. They could have done the work Sun did in 2016 back in 1983 if they had chosen to. The rather crude figures they actually did put out in 1983 were probably an attempt to convince people that Mao’s left-wing policies had indeed led to the deaths of 10 million people, 7 million of which were due to bad policies and only 3 million due to extreme weather events. (The official verdict was that the deaths were 30% due to natural disasters and 70% due to policy error.) Now that western commentators have inflated this figure to 45 million, with 100% being the fault of Mao, the Chinese government has wisely decided to stop promoting such notions.
No one is ever going to come up with an exact figure for deaths in a time when proper data was not collected. However, the work of Sun Jingxian does effectively and finally destroy the myth that Mao killed tens of millions of people in the Great Leap Forward. As my own articles on the issue have shown Mao did not ‘kill’ anyone during the Great Leap Forward. I present documentary evidence that he stressed the need for caution in economic policy at this time, and he urged cadres to consult the people about their plans for economic development. When famine struck his government provided food aid, Mao did not deliberately starve his people for some bizarre reason as anti-communist writers allege. We are left with a famine which while likely to have led to a significant loss of life was of the same order as the famines that had afflicted China throughout its history and possibly somewhat less. Ultimately the famine was the result of the very impoverished nation that Mao had become the leader of just ten years before. Mao was not responsible for China’s lack of development, but he was the leader who put China on the path to becoming a modern, industrial economy that would no longer suffer from famine.
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