It can be difficult to remember today, but before 1978—the beginning of the reform era—famines struck China with depressing regularity. Many (or perhaps most) of them were human-induced. That certainly goes for the terrible famine of 1959-1961, which resulted from Mao Zedong’s so-called “Great Leap Forward” economic development program. A key element of this murderous social experiment was the forced collectivization of farmers into enormous People’s Communes consisting of thousands of households. Intended to bring about food security and income levels approaching those of the United Kingdom (the Soviet Union wanted to surpass the US, so Mao targeted the UK), it led instead to the starvation of some 20-50 million people. No one knows the true number.
China’s government is still pursuing the dream of food self-sufficiency, with less success than ever. The more food China produces, the more food Chinese people eat—and then some. Rising prosperity has led to a shift from undernourishment to obesity as Chinese people consume more meat and high-energy processed foods. In today’s connected world, people routinely eat food from all over the world, yet self-sufficiency remains the holy grail of Chinese government agricultural policy. Like their comrades of sixty years ago, today’s Communist Party planners are willing to impose hardships on the countryside if they believe it will help the country meet its meaningless food production targets.
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