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.