I’m Trying to Solve a Decades Old Mystery: How Many People Were Killed by China’s Great Famine?

There’s a mystery in China that’s decades old: how many people died during the Great Famine?

It’s almost impossible to say. Some historians call it the worst man-made disaster in human history, killing one out of every eight people in some places. But much about the time period is actively suppressed in China. In fact, it’s euphemistically referred to as the “Three Years of Natural Disasters” there, and discussion remains taboo.

As an economist and a concerned citizen, I’ve been seeking out the truth. Not only are there important historical and economic lessons to be learned from this episode, the Chinese government’s continued censorship of the past helps perpetuate the closed, authoritarian political system there.

It’s also important to understand because the Great Famine was caused by avoidable human mistakes, not inescapable natural disasters.

The trouble began in 1949, when the Communist party took power. Soon after, Mao’s Great Leap Forward tried to modernize China’s agricultural system. But many farmers were unable to grow enough food for themselves after handing over a considerable portion to the government.

This led to mass starvation across the country’s countryside. At the time, I was in my early 30s and working at the Railway Research Institute. I remember that our basketball court had been transformed into a field to grow wheat.

Eventually, I was labeled a “rightist” and persecuted, along with thousands of others. We were removed from our posts and sent to the countryside for “re-education.” I was reduced to the lowest human form, constantly stalked by the nightmare that I could never shake: hunger.

There were 700 people in the small village where I stayed during this period. Roughly 80-90 died from hunger or related diseases before the famine ended in 1961.

Even to this day, most Chinese people aren’t aware of the real impacts of the Great Famine.”

Even to this day, most Chinese people aren’t aware of the real impacts of the Great Famine. Researchers debate the number of people killed, estimating it’s anywhere from 18 million to more than 42 million. The official Chinese government estimate hovers around 20 million.

I’ve been investigating the question. According to the Chinese government’s own statistical yearbook, the population of China was growing continuously until the end of 1958. If we follow this line of growth, the population should have been 711.18 million by 1962, instead of 658.59 million, a difference of about 52 million individuals.

We cannot, however, simply say the Great Leap Forward killed 52 million people. Though millions starved to death, that number also accounts for females who did not give birth, and babies that were never born. If we subtract the would-be newborns, given the average mortality and fertility rates of the period, the number of unnatural deaths during the Great Famine was 36 million.

If this is right, the Great Famine killed about as many people as the Second World War. It is the equivalent of a Nanjing Massacre in every one of China’s 30 provincial capitals five times over.

“The Chinese people were cheated,” Jo Lusby, head of China operations for Penguin, told the Guardian. “They need real history.” That is my quest — to answer the questions we don’t always know to ask.

Mao Yushi is a Chinese economist. He is the winner of the Cato Institute’s Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty.