Home > Analysis > Did Millions Die in the Great Leap Forward: A Quick Note on the Underlying Statistics

Did Millions Die in the Great Leap Forward: A Quick Note on the Underlying Statistics

[This is part I or a 2 part series on the underlying statistics  of the Great Leap Forward.  Part II can be found here]

Recently, Ray wrote a great post – and readers added valuable comments – that provided some contexts surrounding the Great Leap Forward.  When people discuss the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), the starting point is almost always the millions killed.  I want ask: how fair is that starting point? 1

In this post, I want to briefly focus on specific issue of the underlying statistics – and the often-made claim that millions and millions (I have heard upward of 70+ million!) died in the Great Leap Forward.

According to official Chinese data released in 1983, some 16 million died during the years of the Great Leap Forward (1958 to 1961). But how good is this number (or any other number)?

The most direct way to come up with such a number is if the government could actually count up all those who died during the years of the Great Leap Forward.  To do so, however, the government would have needed to keep a good record of those who died before, during, and after the Great Leap Forward.  We need data before and after to obtain a baseline against which deaths during the Great Leap Forward can be compared.  The government would also have needed the capability to preserve those records and then later to count them up.

Unfortunately, such direct counts is next to impossible, for at least two reasons.

First, China was a poor country, made up predominately of poor rural population. It was not unusual at all to find a person alive who did not have a birth certificate and who died without a death certificate. Second, the birth and certificates – even when issued – were issued at a local level, often informally.  The records were not standardized, were not systematically well kept or maintained, and were not regularly transferred to a central location. It is next to impossible now to demand a reconstruction and aggregation of all such records throughout the nation to determine a national death count.

The next best way to come up with a death count of the Great Leap Forward is by a good statistical estimate of death rates before, during, and after the Great Leap Forward – and from that, calculate based on an estimate of the population size at the time, the death attributed to the Great Leap Forward.

Unfortunately, no reliable estimates of Chinese national death rates exist for that time either.  One might not see discussion of this simple fact in the standard Western narrative on the Great Leap Forward. However, outside the context of the Great Leap Forward, this fact is readily appreciated.

For example, while it is widely accepted that China’s development over the last 60 years has lifted millions out of poverty, scholars in the West have also argued that it is next to impossible to quantify exactly how many. As Banister and Preston noted 2:

It is generally believed that the People’s Republic of China has achieved significant mortality decline during the last 30 years. However, until very recently, the only data available from China showing this mortality decline were reported crude death rates for occasional years. The sources of these reported crude death rates have almost never been revealed, and the data could have been based on the total number of registered deaths compiled from localities throughout the whole country or only from selected areas of the country. Because of the possibility of serious underregistration of deaths or reliance on an unrepresentative sample of localities, analysis of China’s population have been reluctant to take these reported death rates at face value. Infant mortality rates, as occasionally reported for cities or rural areas, are often implausibly low, so that serious underregistration of infant deaths in particular appears likely.

Reported data on China’s level of morality have been scattered and of questionable validity, but data on the age patterns of mortality for the country as a whole have not been reported at all.  … It is likely … therefore … that the government had no more idea of China’s pattern of mortality since 1949 than foreign analysts.

In 1980, for the first time, the People’s Republic of China informally released age-specific mortality data collected in a massive survey of registered deaths and causes of death. We report and analysis these data in an effort to describe China’s recent mortality level and pattern.

Without good national statistical estimates of the the death rate for the Great Leap Forward, the next best thing is to indirectly estimate the death rate by looking to Chinese census data, and from that estimate derive a death count.

The PRC carried out a first census in 1953, and a second one in 1964. 3 The results are shown below.

Year Census
1953 601.938
1964 723.0703

If one could estimate (guess) a reasonable normal baseline growth rate (growth rate = birth rate – death rate) during “normal years” in between these census years (1954-1957, 1962-1964), then by comparing the 1964 census figures and the expected 1964 figures, it is plausible to estimate how many died abnormally during the Great Leap Forward.

Indeed, many of China’s official government population statistics on population, birth rate, death rates during that period 4were derived thus.

year population birth rate death rate growth rate*
1954 602.664 0.03797 0.01318 0.02479
1955 614.65 0.0326 0.01228 0.02032
1956 628.283 0.0319 0.0114 0.0205
1957 646.533 0.03403 0.0108 0.02323
1958 659.943 0.02922 0.01198 0.01724
1959 672.069 0.02478 0.01459 0.01019
1960 662.07 0.02086 0.02543 -0.00457
1961 658.591 0.01813 0.01433 0.0038
1962 672.955 0.03722 0.01008 0.02714
1963 691.72 0.0436 0.0101 0.0335
1964 704.991 0.03934 0.01156 0.02778

*growth rate is calculated via birth rate – death rate.

Table 1: Government population statics of China, 1953 – 1964

A graph of the birth rates and death rates in the table is provided below.

1953-1964 birth and mortality rates china

Fig. 1 Nation birth rates and death rates for China between 1953 and 1964

The government’s 16 million estimated death comes from estimating the “normal” baseline death rate to be .0108. Subtracting .0108 from the death rates in Table 1 to get an “abnormal death rate,” and then multiplying that result by the estimated population at the time, one gets an estimate of the numbers dead attributed to the Great Leap Forward for each year of the Great Leap Forward. The process is summarized below.

year death rate abnormal death rate estimated population (million) estimated death due to GLF (million)
1958 0.01198 0.00118 657.2177938 0.775516997
1959 0.01459 0.00379 663.9148431 2.516237256
1960 0.02543 0.01463 660.8807523 9.668685406
1961 0.01433 0.00353 663.3920992 2.34177411
total GLF death (million) 15.30221377

Table 2A: Estimated number of death in the Great Leap Forward based on data provided in Table 1 and an estimated baseline death rate of .0108.

This appears to be a very rough estimate.  For one thing, as noted by jxie in this comment, the .0108 death rate appears to be low for a population in the 1950’s, even by Western standards. If we take an average of the published death rates during the baseline years (1954-1957, 1962-1964), we get a slightly different baseline death rate of .01134, resulting in a slightly lower number of death at 13.87 million. This calculation is summarized Table 2B.

year death rate abnormal death rate estimated population (million) estimated death due to GLF (million)
1958 0.01198 0.000637143 657.2177938 0.418741623
1959 0.01459 0.003247143 663.9148431 2.155826341
1960 0.02543 0.014087143 660.8807523 9.309921569
1961 0.01433 0.002987143 663.3920992 1.981646971
total GLF death (million) 13.8661365

Table 2B: Estimated number of death in the Great Leap Forward based on data provided in Table 1 and an estimated baseline death rate of .01134.

If we do above again using a baseline death rate of .012 (that of West Germany around 1960), then the estimated death becomes 12.13 million.

So given a little uncertainty in the baseline death rate, we get an estimated dead varying between of 12 – 16 million for the Great Leap Forward.  But the problem is bigger than that. As it turns out, the census figures cannot per se give a good estimate with any margin of error we need of the death rate. 5

To illustrate this, let’s first calculate an estimated population for 1964 based on the 1953 census figure and the birth and mortality rates shown in Table 1. The process is shown below.

year census figure  (million) birthrate death rate growth rate estimated population (million)
1953 601.938
1954 0.03797 0.01318 0.02479 616.860043
1955 0.0326 0.01228 0.02032 629.3946391
1956 0.0319 0.0114 0.0205 642.2972292
1957 0.03403 0.0108 0.02323 657.2177938
1958 0.02922 0.01198 0.01724 668.5482286
1959 0.02478 0.01459 0.01019 675.360735
1960 0.02086 0.02543 -0.00457 672.2743365
1961 0.01813 0.01433 0.0038 674.828979
1962 0.03722 0.01008 0.02714 693.1438375
1963 0.0436 0.0101 0.0335 716.364156
1964 723.0703

Table 3: Estimated population from 1954 – 1963 based on 1953 census and government published birth and death rates

In this table, the 1954 estimated population is calculated to be 616.86 million, as 601.938 * (1+(.03797-.01318)).  The 1955 estimated population is calculated to be 629.39 million, as 616.86 * (1+(.0326-.01228)).  The process is iterated until we get the 1964 figure. 6 By this process, one estimates the 1964 population to be 716.36 million, a figure that is only .92% off from the actual 1964 census figure.

At first, the .92% would appear to confirm the death rates shown in Table 1 (a rate that would result in either a 12, 14, or 16 million figure, depending on the presumed baseline rate), with little leeway for the figure to be revised much more upward or downward.

However, it turns out the numbers can nevertheless be revised dramatically either way without violating the census figures. To see, this, one might replace the death rate for 1958-1961 in Table 3 during the Great Leap Forward years by a “normal” baseline death rate of 0.01134, as if no abnormal deaths occurred during the Great Leap Forward.

year census figure  (million) birthrate deathrate growthrate estimated population (million)
1953 601.938
1954 0.03797 0.01318 0.02479 616.860043
1955 0.0326 0.01228 0.02032 629.3946391
1956 0.0319 0.0114 0.0205 642.2972292
1957 0.03403 0.0108 0.02323 657.2177938
1958 0.02922 0.01134 0.01788 668.968848
1959 0.02478 0.01134 0.01344 677.9597893
1960 0.02086 0.01134 0.00952 684.4139665
1961 0.01813 0.01134 0.00679 689.0611373
1962 0.03722 0.01008 0.02714 707.7622566
1963 0.0436 0.0101 0.0335 731.4722922
1964 723.0703

Table 4: Estimated population from 1954 – 1963 based on 1953 census and government published birth and death rates, with the death rates during the Great Leap Forward replaced by the “normal” baseline death rate of 0.01134.

Instead of an estimated 1964 population of 716 million, .92% below the 1964 census figure (see Table 3), we now get an estimated population of 731 million, 1.1% above the 1964 census figure.  Not bad at all!  Without additional information on the margin of errors of the 1953 and 1964 census, 1.1% would appear to be just as acceptable as -.92%.

In other words, to the extent that the census data of 1953 and 1964 support the assertion that 14 (or 12 or 16) million died, depending on the presumed baseline death rate, the data also support with equal likelihood that no one died as a result of the Great Leap Forward! 

If one insists on a qualitative difference between an error rate of .92% vs. 1.1%, that insistence begins to make no sense when takes into account the birth rates as well. As can be noted by studying Table 1, the birth rates published by the government – even during non-Great Leap Forward years – fluctuated regularly, with a standard of deviation of .00384. Applying that uncertainty to the published published birth rates during the Great Leap Forward by shifting them downward by just one standard of deviation (.00384), one gets an estimated 1964 population of 720.43 million, for an error now of just +.3%, thus putting the error of the null hypothesis under that of the government hypothesis (.92%.) This process is summarized below in Tables 5 and 6.

published rate modified rate difference
1958 0.02922 0.02538 -0.00384
1959 0.02478 0.02094 -0.00384
1960 0.02086 0.01702 -0.00384
1961 0.01813 0.01429 -0.00384

Table 5: Modified birth rates used in Table 6.

year census figure birthrate deathrate growthrate estimated population
1953 601.938
1954 0.03797 0.01318 0.02479 616.860043
1955 0.0326 0.01228 0.02032 629.3946391
1956 0.0319 0.0114 0.0205 642.2972292
1957 0.03403 0.0108 0.02323 657.2177938
1958 0.02538 0.01134 0.01404 666.4451317
1959 0.02094 0.01134 0.0096 672.8430049
1960 0.01702 0.01134 0.00568 676.6647532
1961 0.01429 0.01134 0.00295 678.6609142
1962 0.03722 0.01008 0.02714 697.0797714
1963 0.0436 0.0101 0.0335 720.4319438
1964 723.0703

Table 6: Estimated population from 1954 – 1963 based on 1953 census and government published birth and death rates, with the death rates during the Great Leap Forward replaced by the “normal” baseline death rate of 0.01134, and birth rates during the Great Leap Forward lowered by .00384 (the standard deviation of the birth rates of the baseline years).

We cannot therefore make any assertion whether anyone died as a result of the Great Leap Forward because we cannot refute the null hypothesis that no one died due to the Great Leap Forward, as far as the census data of 1953 and 1964 are concerned.

To make things more concrete, let’s now to consider the margin of error in the 1953 and 1964 census figures. The government does not provide an official margin of error for either the 1953 nor 1964 census. Given the stage of China’s development at that time (we are after all talking about the Great Leap Forward, about one of China’s failed attempt to advance and industrialize), it is not unreasonable to assume that those figures would possess high margins of error. The 1953 data – in particular – is especially troublesome.

To provide a bit of perspective, here is a quote from Wild Swans and Mao’s Agrarian Strategy, Australia-China Review, by Wim F. Werthheim, Emeritus Professor, the Univ. of Amsterdam 7

Often it is argued that at the censuses of the 1960s “between 17 and 29 millions of Chinese” appeared to be missing, in comparison with the official census figures from the 1950s. But these calculations are lacking any semblance of reliability.

At my first visit to China, in August 1957, I had asked to get the opportunity to meet two outstanding Chinese social scientists: Fei Xiao-tung, the sociologist, and Chen Ta, the demographer. I could not meet either of them, because they were both seriously criticized at that time as rightists’; but I was allowed a visit by Pang Zenian, a Marxist philosopher who knew about the problems of both scholars. Chen Ta was criticised because he had attacked the pretended 1953 census. In the past he had organised censuses, and he could not believe that suddenly, within a rather short period, the total population of China had risen from 450 to 600 million (by the way: with inclusion of 17 million from Taiwan), as had been officially claimed by the Chinese authorities after the 1953 ‘census’. He would have like to organise a scientifically well-founded census himself, instead of an assessment largely based on regional random samples as had happened in 1953. According to him, the method followed in that year was unscientific. For that matter, a Chinese expert of demography, Dr. Ping-ti Ho,  Professor of History at the University of Chicago, in a book titled Studies on the Population of China, 1368-1953, Harvard East Asian Studies No.4, 1959, also mentioned numerous ‘flaws’ in the 1953 census: “All in all, therefore, the nationwide enumeration of 1953 was not a census in the technical definition of the term”; the separate provincial figures show indeed an unbelievable increase of some 30% in the period 1947-1953, a period of heavy revolutionary struggle (PP.93/94)!

My conclusion is that the claim that in the 1960s a number between 17 and 29 million people was ‘missing’ is worthless if there was never any certainty about the 600 millions of Chinese. Most probably these ‘missing people’ did not starve in the calamity years 1960-61, but in fact have never existed.

If we assume a margin of error of a mere 5% for the 1953 census (very generous given the nature of the 1953 census), and allow that margin of error to be propagated, we would get a 5% error for all estimates based on the 1953 on. An error of either .92 or, .3%, or 1.1% error would thus clearly be  within the statical error supported by our data.  In fact, with a 5% error, presuming no margin for error for the 1964 census, the data supports an absurdly wide range of estimates.

For example, by further assuming the birth rates throughout the Great Leap Forward to be constant, at the 1957 rate, the data support an assertion that as many as 70 million died. The calculation can be found below.

year census figure birth rate death rate growthrate estimated population
1953 601.938
1954 0.03797 0.01318 0.02479 616.860043
1955 0.0326 0.01228 0.02032 629.3946391
1956 0.0319 0.0114 0.0205 642.2972292
1957 0.03403 0.0108 0.02323 657.2177938
1958 0.034 0.038 -0.004 654.5889227
1959 0.034 0.038 -0.004 651.970567
1960 0.034 0.038 -0.004 649.3626847
1961 0.034 0.038 -0.004 646.765234
1962 0.03722 0.01008 0.02714 664.3184424
1963 0.0436 0.0101 0.0335 686.5731102
1964 723.0703 total GLF death (million) 69.3876463

Table 8: Estimated population from 1954 – 1963 based on 1953 census and government published birth and death rates, with the birth rates during the Great Leap Forward assumed constant to be constant at 1957 levels, and the death rate presumed to be  .038, with a baseline death rate of .01134.

An even higher number of deaths can be supported if we specify a nonzero margin of error for the 1964 census figure.

In light of the fact that the data we have is so spotty that it can support any of several millions upon millions died thesis as well as the no one died thesis, many have turned to anecdotal evidence to make their own estimates of the numbers death. Relying on anecdotal and piecemeal evidence was also the only way a Western researcher could study the Great Leap Forward during the Cold War years. With China closed off in part by an aggressive Western embargo against China, scholars in the West had little information into what China was really like on the ground.

Still, anecdotal evidence inevitably undermines serious research. They are considered bad even in politics. In the case of the Great Leap Forward, anecdotal evidence should be taken with an even more urgent degree of care. According to official government data, the effects of the Great Leap Forward affected different localities very differently.  The general extrapolation of data from any one or a few localities is itself an error.

While this piece has focused on the underlying statistics, I also want to point out – as we come to the end – how I think we should also re-evaluate how the millions upon millions died thesis is framed. The Great Leap Forward occurred 1958-1961, but it did not occur in a vacuum.  It occurred as part of a determined effort on the part of the Chinese to industrialize even as they strive for political independence. In that vein, perhaps the focus should not be on just the four years, but on the years from 1949 on.  It’s been noted, for example, how India and China started on equal footing across many economic and human welfare indices in 1949.  However, since that time on, China has outperformed India on almost all indices.  On infant mortality alone, the persistent improvements China has made over the years over India means that China had averted  hundreds of millions of death that still occurs in India every day today.

In another vein, more light should perhaps be shed on the international embargo directed at China at the time.  Had the West relented on her inhumane embargo, much suffering could have been reduced. Whatever your view of the Great Leap Forward, the dominant narrative we hear today is definitely too simplistic.

Back to statistics. I want to conclude by emphasizing that I am not refuting per se that millions upon millions died in the Great Leap.  I have no privileged information on which to make such assertions. It may turn out to be the case that millions upon millions did die, or it may turn out to be the case much fewer died than currently believed. However judging how readily and resiliently China’s GDP recovered after the Great Leap Forward (see chart below 8, notice how quickly the after the GLF, the rate of growth rebounded (if a massive number of people died, you might expect the slope to be permanently depressed, until the population could catch up)), my guess is that not that many people actually died – at least not on scale of millions upon millions. Whatever your inclinations, we must acknowledge front and center that no reputable systematic data exists to make broad pronouncements of how many actually died (or did not die) during the Great Leap Forward, and how much piecemeal and anecdotal evidence form the basis of current discussions of the Great Leap Forward in the West.

China's GDP 1960-1976

Fig. 2 GDP (RMB) for China from 1960-1976 (Government Data)



  1. For resources that raise doubt, see, e.g., this piece by Joseph Ball, or this interesting piece from “Set the Record Straight”
  2. http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/1972767?uid=2&uid=4&sid=21101590357931.
  3. http://news.xinhuanet.com/english2010/china/2011-04/28/c_13850246.htm
  4. see http://www.stats.gov.cn/english/
  5. Much of what I demonstrate below is based on the simple observation that the population estimates at the beginning and end of a period of time is not very sensitive to changes in annual death rates of a small sub-period of that time. The corollary is that if we depend on the population estimates at the beginning and end of a period of time to derive the death rates of a sub-period of that time, relatively small errors in the population estimates would allow for relatively large errors in the death rates of the sub period, so much as to potentially render any estimates of death rates unusable or irrelevant.
  6. Note, to make these calculation, I have assumed the census population to be the population estimate for the beginning of the year.  The estimated population I calculate is for the end of year.  Modifications can be made for these assumptions – e.g. census information is  mid-year – with some changes in my numbers, but the conclusion drawn would be the same.
  7. Thanks to www21234 for bringing this to my attention.
  8. data from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_GDP_of_the_People%27s_Republic_of_China
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  1. February 2nd, 2013 at 17:44 | #1

    So I just looked up the death rate of the UK between 2000-2012 (see 1st link), which averaged around 10 death per 1,000 people, which is right around 1%, and that of Germany in the same period, which is around 10.5 deaths per 1,000 people (1.05%)


    Given that context, I think the notion that China’s 1950s death rates are comparable to that of western nations TODAY is indeed quite ridiculous.

  2. N.M.Cheung
    February 2nd, 2013 at 20:42 | #2

    I agree that the western media’s speculation/exaggeration of number of deaths of GLF is incorrect. Given the shortage of foods during that period ( I was in Shanghai until May 59, and with strict rationing of grain and other foods.), I am sure there was extreme food shortage from anecdotal evidence myself from later part of 60 to early 61, especially in rural areas, there were famines which cannot be denied. The population shortage could partly explained by the lower birth rates also as food became scarce. I don’t see the point in trying to minimize it by statistical methodology. We all agree Mao and Chinese leadership made errors during GLF and circumstances may have worsen it or contribute to its cause, but that Chinese Communist Party has been a positive factor in building today’s China and we should emphasize that.

  3. February 3rd, 2013 at 01:48 | #3

    Allen, thanks for a top-notched piece. Would like to make a few comments…

    First I would like to start from a totally different but easier to explain and understand story, from which one can see how comparing two data sets collected in different methods can produce some very wrong conclusions.

    A few years ago, there were reports that Illiteracy Jumps in China. The story was initially broken out in China, and even reported by the People’s Daily. Many theories had been put forward, and a common explanation (anecdotes) was that many children of migrant workers stopped going to school. You can view the actual numbers for 2005 and 2000. The increase was “real”, but had the education in China gone down?

    The numbers simply didn’t add up. The 5-year jump of 29 million illiterate population between 2000 and 2005, would mean on average each year it increased 5.8 mn. Take 2003 as an example. The increase to the adult (15 year or older) group was at 25.9 mn or that many turned 15 in 2003; and the decrease was at 8.5 mn or that many died in 2003. The bulk of those who died in 2003 were born before the founding of PRC when the literacy rate was at estimated 15%. Let’s be charitable and assume among those who died in 2003, the literacy rate was at 30%, you had 6.0 mn illiterate people died that year. So, among those who turned 15 in 2003, the illiterate ones were (5.8 + 6.0) = 11.8 mn, which mean the illiterate rate among them was a mind-boggling 46%, which couldn’t remotely be true.

    The problem? The 2000 data set was produced during the 2000 census, during which people were simply asked if they were literate — there is a built-in upward bias in literacy rate in that data set. The 2005 data set was produced by the Ministry of Education, through a 1+% population sampling with the actual literacy test. Does the illiteracy rate in China actually had gone up? NO! For the same type of data, the 2010 census show a 4.08% illiteracy rate, down from 6.72% in 2000 (of total population).

    Get back to the GLF data arguments. In the population data collected during the 50s and the 60s, there was an upward bias in the early and mid-50s that overtime became less pronounced gradually.

  4. February 3rd, 2013 at 02:17 | #4

    The highest number by those who seriously did some math was put out by Judith Banister. All of those after her have stopped caring the actual methodologies but seemingly been in a competition on who can put out the highest number — apparently it has reached the stratospheric 70 mn, higher than the WW2 worldwide total fatalities.

    Banister probably also realized the inconvenient truth that if we based on the official Chinese data, China’s mortality rates between 1958 and 1961 on average weren’t higher than many other developing countries, and the mortality rates of other years were actually better than the likes of West Germany, Austria, etc. You couldn’t just pin Mao as a mass murder if he turned China into something better than West Germany in all but 4 years, as far as the mortality rate went, and even in those 4 years China did slightly better than the likes of India and Indonesia. She postulated that both the birth rates and the mortality rates in China weren’t reliable in the 50s, and only gradually got better in the 60s. She has a point there… but what was followed was really an eye-opener — though she was far more intellectually honest than say Frank Dikotter and Jung Chang.

    Banister started using a combination of different verifiable data, mostly sample data (such as cancer survival rate), to modify the official Chinese population data. Her mortality data compared to the official Chinese data:

    year | Official Data | Banister’s Data
    1956 | 1.23% | 2.01%
    1957 | 1.08% | 1.81%
    1958 | 1.20% | 2.07%
    1959 | 1.46% | 2.21%
    1960 | 2.54% | 4.46%
    1961 | 1.43% | 2.30%
    1962 | 1.01% | 1.40%

    Then she assumed if there was no famine, the mortality rate should’ve lineally improved from 1957’s 1.81% to 1962’s 1.40%. Anything above that nice lineal line, is abnormal deaths (theoretically not starvation deaths, but why bother by that little mischief in the grand scheme of things.). Her conclusion was 30 mn abnormal deaths.

  5. February 3rd, 2013 at 02:30 | #5

    We will never know how many actually starved to death between 1958 and 1961 in China. However, I don’t believe those who put out numbers such as that there were 10+ mn starvation deaths in Sichuan, understand what the number implicitly mean. At that level, it was 1 in 7 died of starvation, matching the Great Irish Famine.

    In the case of the Great Irish Famine, it lasted 7 years. 7 years after the end of the famine, the potato production was a meager 29% of the pre-famine height. It’s fairly easy to understand it: when 1/7 of the population died of starvation, even young men started dying or severely suffered physically, and typically the agricultural productions would not recover for years and sometimes for decades.

    However, in the case of China, the agricultural output in 1965 already matched that in 1957.

  6. February 3rd, 2013 at 08:14 | #6

    Thanks for writing such an excellent article. The ONLY reason I didn’t put any number in my own writing is because there is no way I can get a reliable figure from the statistic available. I am an engineer by training and I don’t want to ruin my own reputation. I also don’t want to fall into the ideological trap of trying to skew the data to make a point like so many authors who try to politicize the matter.

    My own research simply showed that the economic model introduced at the beginning of the GLF was flawed in that it did not take into account how regular human would react. It is a good economical development plan that is simply too idealistic, job and food for everybody. Isn’t this what all human society try to solve since the dawn of time? The CPC was also naive in believing that they had found the solution. I have pretty much conclude that most human would act the same given the same rule. It is simply so easy to find a scapegoat to blame. And given that there is politics involved, the matter is simply taken to another level. Haha, isn’t that another human trait.

    Comparing birth rate and death rate among countries can also be a proverbial case of comparing apple to orange. Unless both countries have the same demographic makeup in age group and gender it is totally flawed. You simply cannot expect a country with a higher percentage older or younger population to have the same death or birth even the social economy condition was equal. This is why death rate for many rich developed countries is so high, the percentage of older people is so much higher.

    For an event as big as the GLP forward it is simply meaningless to try to deduce a national famine death rate. China is a big and geographically diverse country. To even properly do a research on the famine of 1959, 1960 and 1961; the researchers should travel to pretty much every county or village to collect the data. My writing give just a general picture of what happened but it is not the definite. Different villages in China at that time has different development level. The disparity between a poorer village in and richer one would be so great it would simply even baffled most China experts. During the famine, some areas still have surplus and did not suffer starvation but in some areas it is a disaster but still not as bad as during the Sino-Japanese war years of 1937-1945. So given the estimate of death caused by the war at around 25-30 million it is impossible to arrive at any higher figure for the three disastrous years of the GLF.

  7. February 3rd, 2013 at 23:55 | #7


    Thanks for sharing this. I think I need to follow up with another post (shorter) about studies based on non-contemporaneous sources. Will get to that in a day or so.

  8. February 8th, 2013 at 17:51 | #8
  9. February 12th, 2013 at 09:19 | #9

    Global Times 6/9-12: Great leap: “… government estimates of over 10 million.”

    “As for Yang (Yang Jisheng), he feared facing political retribution, although this remained unfounded. He published his book Tombstone in 2008 in Hong Kong, an account of the famine seen during the Great Leap Forward. During his research for the book, Yang spent 10 years collecting materials and visiting survivors of the starvation. The book was meant to commemorate the dead not only in Henan but in other provinces, including Sichuan, Anhui and Shandong, on which the book focuses.

    The death toll reached over 30 million nationwide, according to Yang’s investigation. This figure is far higher than government estimates of over 10 million.”


  10. wwww1234
    May 4th, 2013 at 19:20 | #10

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