What Caused The Great Chinese Famine?

The Chinese famine of 1959–61 resulted in the deaths of up to 30 million people. In terms of human suffering, there is little doubt that it was the worst famine of modern times. But what caused it? Simple logic would suggest that famines are caused by a sudden decline in food availability, but the Nobel Prize-winning work of Amartya Sen demonstrates why the answer may not be so simple.

In the latest issue of the Economic Journal, Justin Lin and Dennis Yang present the first serious econometric study to assess the relative importance of causes of famine. Using Sen”s ”entitlement theory”, which emphasises the distribution of food as well as its absolute level, the authors assess the causes of the Chinese famine. They find that both the absolute level of food and its distribution contributed significantly to the famine.

In 1959–61, Chinese agricultural production collapsed because of sudden institutional change, natural calamities and a series of policy mistakes. The grain output dropped by 15% in 1959 and reached only about 70% of its 1958 level in 1960 and 1961. China had a planned economic structure where the acquisition and distribution of food were directly controlled by the central government. A food rationing system existed in cities where urban residents had protected legal rights for a certain amount of grain consumption. In contrast, compulsory grain procurement
quotas were imposed on farmers in rural areas. As a result, residents in rural areas were entitled only to the remaining grain. Given these institutional arrangements, a decline in food output and the urban-biased grain distribution system could be the fundamental causes of the Chinese famine.

The traditional approach to famine analysis, based on the writings of Adam Smith and Malthus, proposes that famines are primarily caused by a sudden decline in food availability. This supplybased account was an accepted explanation for famines up until Amartya Sen”s Nobel Prize winning work. Sen emphasised that while a shortage in per capita food output may cause famines, it is only one of many possible causes. In his studies of several well-known historical famines, he found that famines occurred even when per capita food output was maintained. Hence, his ”entitlement approach” focused on the distribution of food as well as its absolute level. Using data on 28 Chinese provinces for the period 1954–66, Lin and Yang test the relative significance of the two factors. The per capita grain output in a province is used as a proxy for food availability in that province. The proportion of rural population in a province represents the proportion of the population who did not have legally protected rights to food – that is, a proxy for the degree of urban bias.

If Sen”s entitlement theory is correct, then the death rate should be positively related to the proportion of rural population (urban bias hypothesis) and negatively related to per capita grain output (food availability hypothesis). The results show that both per capita grain output and percentage of rural population in a province are important determinants of the observed death rates in that province. Larger reductions in per capita grain supply caused more deaths and a larger urban population resulted in fewer famine victims in the province.

These researchers” observations and analysis give support to Sen”s entitlement theory, which states that, in addition to food availability, famine analysis should also focus on rural-urban and institution-based policies.

”Food Availability, Entitlements and the Chinese famine 1959–61 ” by Justin Yifu Lin and Dennis Tao Yang is published in the January 2000 issue of the Economic Journal. Lin is at Peking University and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology; Yang is at Duke University in North Carolina.

Dennis Yang

001-919-660-1821 | yang@econ.duke.edu