The origins of the famine can be traced to Mao Zedong's decision, supported by the leadership of China's communist party, to launch the Great Leap Forward. This mass mobilisation of the country's huge population was to achieve in just a few years economic advances that took other nations many decades to accomplish.2
Mao, beholden to Stalinist ideology that stressed the key role of heavy industry, made steel production the centrepiece of this deluded effort. Instead of working in the fields, tens of millions of peasants were ordered to mine local deposits of iron ore and limestone, to cut trees for charcoal, to build simple clay furnaces, and to smelt metal. This frenzied enterprise did not produce steel but mostly lumps of brittle cast iron unfit for even simple tools. Peasants were forced to abandon all private food production, and newly formed agricultural communes planted less land to grain, which at that time was the source of more than 80% of China's food energy.3
At the same time, fabricated reports of record grain harvests were issued to demonstrate the superiority of communal farming. These gross exaggerations were then used to justify the expropriation of higher shares of grain for cities and the establishment of wasteful communal mess halls serving free meals.4
In reality, grain harvest plummeted (fig ); and since supply and demand of food before 1958 were almost equal, by the spring of 1959 there was famine in a third of China's provinces.
Total and per capita grain production in China, 1950-70
As an essentially social catastrophe, the famine showed clear marks of omission, commission, and provision. These three attributes recur in all modern manmade famines.5
The greatest omission was the failure of China's rulers to acknowledge the famine and promptly to secure foreign food aid. Study of famines shows how easily they can be ended (or prevented) once the government decides to act—but the Chinese government took nearly three years to act. Taking away all means of private food production (in some places even cooking utensils), forcing peasants into mismanaged communes, and continuing food exports were the worst acts of commission. Preferential supply of food to cities and to the ruling elite was the deliberate act of selective provision.
These actions are perfect illustrations of Sen's thesis about the critical link between political alienation of the governors from the governed: “The direct penalties of a famine are borne by one group of people and political decisions are taken by another. The rulers never starve. But when a government is accountable to the local populace it too has good reasons to do its best to eradicate famines. Democracy, via electoral politics, passes on the price of famines to the rulers as well.”6
There was no such link in Mao's China.
Weather only exacerbated the suffering. Official accounts still blame the natural catastrophes for the suffering—but China's own statistics belie this explanation.7
Undoubtedly, the drought of 1960-1 would have lowered grain supply in the worst affected provinces, but by itself it would have caused only a small fraction of the eventual nationwide death toll. During the 1990s the worst droughts and floods in China's modern history had only a marginal effect on the country's adequate food supply. Only a return to more rational economic policies after 1961, including imports of grain, ended the famine.
China's opening up to the world made a key difference. The first business deal signed after US President Nixon's visit to Beijing in 1972 was an order for 13 of the world's largest and most modern, American designed, nitrogen fertiliser plants. More purchases of such plants followed, and China became the world's largest producer of nitrogenous fertilisers. The first major change initiated by the reformist faction of the communist party in 1979, less than three years after Mao's death, was to dissolve agricultural communes and free farm prices. By 1984 all food rationing was lifted in the cities, and China's average per capita food supply rose to within 5% of Japan's comfortable mean.8