(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
June 26, 2011
Revisiting Alleged 30 Million Famine
Deaths during China’s Great Leap
years ago, a highly successful vilification campaign was launched
Zedong, saying that a massive famine in which 27 to 30 million people
The ‘estimate’ was later widely publicised by Amartya K Sen who built an entire theory, saying that democratic freedom, especially press freedom, in India meant that famine was avoided while its absence in China explains why the world did not know that such a massive famine had taken place until as much as a quarter century later when the North American demographers painstakingly uncovered it.
The capitalist press was happy to reciprocate the compliment by repeatedly writing of “30 million famine deaths,” to the extent that a fiction was established as historical fact in readers’ minds. The London Economist had a special issue on China some years ago, which repeated the allegation of 30 million deaths in three separate articles and refused to publish the Letter to the Editor this author sent contradicting the claim. More recently, in his Introduction to the book Mao Zedong on Practice and Contradiction, which he edited and published in 2006, Slavoj Zizek also mentioned the figure of 30 millions as though it were a given fact. Well known intellectuals have to be taken seriously and the claim examined.
There are two routes through which very large ‘famine deaths’ have been claimed --- firstly, population deficit and, secondly, imputing births and deaths which did not actually take place. Looking at China’s official population data from its 1953 and 1964 censuses, we see that if the rate of population increase up to 1958 had been maintained, the population should have been 27 million higher over the period over 1959-1961 than it actually was. This population deficit is also discussed by the demographers Pravin Visaria and Leela Visaria. The population deficit was widely equated with ‘famine deaths.’ But 18 million of the people alleged to have died in a famine were not born in the first place. The decline in the birth rate from 29 in 1958 to 18 in 1961 is being counted as famine deaths. The Chinese are a highly talented people, but they have not learnt the art of dying without being born.
is a basic responsibility that everyone, and more particularly
to be clear and precise about. To say or write that “27 million people
the famine in
HOLES IN THE
was excess mortality compared to the 1958 level over the next three
years, of a
much smaller order. Let us be clear on the basic facts about what did
there was a run of three years of bad harvests in
output declined from 1959, there was a rise in the officially measured
rate from 12 in 1958 to 14.6 in 1959, followed by a sharp rise in 1960
per thousand, falling the next year to 14.2 and further to 10 in 1962.
clearly, 1960 was an abnormal year with about 8 million deaths in
excess of the
1958 level, note that this peak official ‘famine’ death rate of 25.4
thousand in China was little different from India’s 24.8 death rate in
year which was considered quite normal and attracted no criticism. If
the remarkably low death rate of 12 per thousand that
In the 1982 census, there was a survey on fertility covering one million persons or a mere 0.1 per cent sample of the population, who were asked about births and deaths from the early 1950s onwards. The very high total fertility rate obtained from this 1982 survey is used by them to say that millions more were actually born between the two census years, 1953 and 1964, than were officially recorded. They ignore the birth rate of 37 per thousand derived from a very much larger 1953 sample which had covered five per cent of all households and was specially designed to collect the information on births and deaths used in the official estimates. Instead, they impute birth rates of 43 to 44 per thousand to the 1950s, using the 1982 survey. There is no justification for such an arbitrary procedure of using a much later reported high fertility rate for a long distant past. We know that a distant recall period makes responses inaccurate. These imputed extra births between 1953 and 1964 total a massive 50 million but according to them did not increase by an iota the 1964 population total, 694.6 million, the official figure which they assume as correct. Thus, although all official birth and death rates are rejected by them, the official population totals are accepted. This opportunistic assumption is clearly necessary for their purpose because it allows them to assert that the same number of extra people died between 1953 and 1964, as the extra people they claim were born.
But the demographers are still not satisfied with the 50 million extra births and deaths that they have conjured up. Fitting a linear time trend to the falling death rate of the early fifties is done to say that deaths should have continued to decline steeply after 1958 and since it did not, the difference from the trend meant additional ‘famine deaths.’ Such straight-line trend fitting is a senseless procedure since the death rate necessarily shows non-linear behaviour. It cannot continue falling at the same steep rate; it has to flatten out and cannot reach zero in any population --- not even the inimitable Chinese people could hope to become immortal. The final estimate of extra deaths in both authors is raised thereby to a massive 60 million, a heroic 65 per cent higher than the official total of deaths over the inter-censal period.
Having created these 60 million extra deaths at their own sweet will out of nothing, the authors then proceed to allocate them over the years 1953 to 1964, arbitrarily attributing a higher portion to the great leap years in particular. The arbitrariness is clear from the variation in their own manipulations of the figures. Coale’s allocation raises his peak death rate in 1960 to 38.8 per thousand while Banister is bolder and raises it to 44.6 compared to the official 25.4 for that year, and 30 million ‘famine deaths’ are claimed over the Great Leap years after all this smart legerdemain. Having violated every tenet of reason, these ‘academics’ may as well have allocated all their imaginary deaths to the Great Leap years and claimed that 60 million died --- why hang themselves only for a lamb rather than for a sheep! Seldom have we seen basic norms of academic probity and honesty being more blatantly violated, than in this travesty of statistical ‘estimates.’ And seldom have noted intellectuals, who might have been expected to show more common sense, shown instead more credulous naivete and irresponsibility, by accepting without investigation and propagating such nonsensical ‘estimates,’ giving them the status of historical fact. In the process, they have libelled and continue to libel Mao Zedong, a great patriot and revolutionary. They have unwittingly confirmed the principle attributed to Goebbels --- that a lie has to be a really big lie and be endlessly repeated; then it is bound to be believed.
million or three crores is not a small figure. When one million people